THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, by Jay Neugeboren. Two Dollar Radio, 282 pp., $16.50 paperback.
This fall, when Philip Roth told an interviewer that he'd stopped writing novels, the commentaries that surged forth might as well have been obituaries. Which writer would continue to honor well-made sentences? Who would capture America's roiling moral anxiety? And do it through tormented, sex-obsessed Jewish men?
For those who feel needled by those questions, Jay Neugeboren's "The Other Side of the World" might be a tonic. Neugeboren has written in relative obscurity for decades, but the linguistic precision, wry humor and libidinal neurosis in his fine new novel put him in good company with the recently retired master.
The story's hero, Charlie, has just returned home to Northampton, Mass., from Singapore, where he's spent three years making a bundle working for a palm-oil company run by Nick, a college buddy. The job was pitched to him as a green-energy gig, but Charlie, son of a novelist, knows nonsense when he hears it: The deforestation of Borneo was "more damaging to the climate than any benefits that might be gained by switching to biofuels made from palm oil."
That's the least of his moral quandaries. First, Charlie is implicated in Nick's death. Second, back in the States, he steals away his father's young girlfriend, Seana, who's written two bestselling novels: one about a woman who gets away with murder, the other an incest tale "that had a deliciously happy ending."
The sense of unreality gives the story urgency and energy. There's a comic glint to Neugeboren's take on heavy issues -- noblesse oblige, anti-Semitism, environmental exploitation, our hunger for parenthood -- that doesn't diminish their seriousness.
Neugeboren returns again and again to the notion that writing is not only how we make sense of the world but how we make it, period. As Charlie's dad says, "If there is such a thing as love, maybe it shows itself forth in stories and in who we choose to tell them to ."
There's a downside to Neugeboren's high-mindedness: the sense that every woman in the novel is at least a little crazy, hard-wired to complicate and diminish the lives of men. Seana's mercurial actions often strain credulity. The suggestion is that men tangle with the moral implications of their actions, while women simply invent the tangles.
If you can make your peace with that -- Roth fans have -- "The Other Side of the World" will charm you with its grace, intelligence and scope. "It is so difficult to do anything well in this mysterious world," Charlie's father tells him. He's describing how badly he fell short as a parent, but he could be summarizing the theme of this inventive novel.