cover image MR Phillips

MR Phillips

John Lanchester. Putnam Adult, $24.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14604-6

Second novels--especially those appearing in the wake of bestselling debuts--present a particular challenge to writers. Following up The Debt to Pleasure with a solid purposefully prosaic tale of a middle-class Englishman, Lanchester acquits himself honorably. Victor Phillips is a 50-something everyman with two sons; a long, comfortable marriage; and a stultifying position as an accountant. Suddenly, on a Friday afternoon, Phillips finds himself downsized. He cannot bring himself to tell his wife, and sets off for work on Monday morning as usual. Taking a train into London, he wanders around, invites his adult son to lunch, visits a porno theater, then endlessly ruminates about the plot of the movie. When he is not musing on sex, he sinks into Walter Mittyesque daydreams or ponders the vagaries of fatherhood and his uncomplicated childhood. The only action occurs when his bank is robbed while he is standing in line. As in The Debt to Pleasure, plot is not paramount, but here the all-important detail is more domestic than exotic. In making a relentlessly ordinary man his hero, Lanchester risks losing himself in the banal. But when he hits the mark, he achieves a sharp-edged clarity. Phillips's wry observations--""We wouldn't care so much what people thought of us if we knew how seldom they did,"" or ""When you are young, sex is It, when you are older, death is""--balance his recurring lists and calculations, as when walking in Battersea Park, he ""feels the long-suppressed need to draw up a tranquillising double-entry."" As soothing as a bill of accounts, and periodically much more stimulating, this stylishly written novel makes it clear that Lanchester is more than a one-hit wonder. BOMC featured alternate; audio rights to Simon & Schuster; author tour. (Apr.)