Picks and Pans Review: Prague
Eastern Europe, 1990. Exit the Cold War. Enter the new occupying forces, the coffeehouse soldiers: North American college grads clutching fresh degrees in world-weariness. Charles, a financier, wants to make a deal; Mark, a scholar, wants to live in the past; Emily, a farm girl, wants to be a tip-top assistant at the Embassy; Scott, an exercise junkie, wants to forget his little brother John; and John, a journalist, wants Emily. All of this happens in Budapest.
Not Prague? No, because this first novel's withering irony starts on the front cover and seeps through every page like hot butter on a stack of pancakes. Everyone in Budapest wishes they were in Prague the way Coney Island wishes it were Disney World. Phillips makes this slacker Sun Also Rises a dark star with a swaggering style full of mischief and heckling: a dejected state-run restaurant serves "command-economy salads and five-year-plan paprikas"; a bad poet disgorges "pages stained with paeans to Nature and his own untamable spirit." Few first novels blaze with such all-knowing poise; like Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Phillips is a wisecracking microbiologist of society and spirit, and like the younger Franzen, he can be cruel to his cast. If he can grow a heart as big as Franzen's, he may be a great novelist. (Random House, $24.95)
Bottom Line: Hungarian feast