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He's the quintessential feckless boy-man, a bit like an early Philip Roth character as remodeled by Nick Hornby, with Smith's signature ethnic wild card thrown in for good measure.

Alex tells himself he can't bear the thought of Esther aging even though "he understood in all likelihood this sort of thinking would lead him to die lonely, without anyone. He told himself the story that this was the great tragedy of his heart. In the course of "The Autograph Man," Alex will travel to New York, seek out Kitty Alexander, sip from the toxic cup of celebrity himself and stagger toward a Thursday on which he has agreed, after much arm-twisting on the part of Adam, to say Kaddish for his Chinese dad.

The Autograph Man: A Novel about Growing Up with a Jewish Mother and a Chinese Father

For Smith's readers, the journey is a lark, lit up by witty, head-turning observations: A very stoned Alex is so hungry he loses the "patience to chew" and "just wants the biscuits to become part of him, to cleave unto him, by magic"; in a hotel he "nipped naked into the tightly-made bed, and fought the sheets for the space he had paid for"; a character chews around the edge of a biscotti "with that unique ineptitude we bring to food we do not recognize"; after a death, the phones start ringing because "what vultures used to do on the outskirts of a village is now the business of the telephone exchange.

Most novelists as smart as Smith tend not to like people that much, while the ones with big hearts tend to have soft heads; even among the cream of the crop you choose between Dickens and DeLillo.

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Whatever barrier keeps writers from fully inhabiting both territories seems to be as irrelevant to Smith as all the others. What did we do to deserve a young novelist this brilliant, this generous, this alive, here among what often look like the dying embers of the form? Nothing, really.

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    Synopsis Praise. We live in a world of signs. Freud, S. A general introduction to psychoanalysis. Furman, A.

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