Published June 4, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

The best beach books -- unless you're Susan Sontag or the Unabomber -- tend to be cool, expertly blended literary cocktails: smart without hurting your head, sexy without bringing on an untimely attack of the friskies, and compelling enough to keep you planted so your sunblock can do its duty. A case in point is Max Phillips' slyly erotic first novel, "Snakebite Sonnet," which goes down like a summer tonic.

The book is a light, frazzled, very funny love story that swings artfully across three decades as Nicholas Wertheim, the book's protagonist, rebels against his left-wing "weirdo family" and pursues his lifelong crush on an elusive older woman named Julia. "She was nineteen, home from Bennington for the summer," Nicholas rhapsodizes early in the book, "and liked to say, I'm pursuing my destiny as a poet and a slut. She was young enough to find glamour in those appellations."

Phillips himself has a knack for finding the emotional glamour in nearly every situation here. The book's plot moves quickly and deftly, but it's Nicholas's antic voice ("Even those who considered me a twit considered me a twit of talent," he says of his artistic abilities) and Phillips' bright prose that keep the book so relentlessly engaging. At many points, Phillips' writing picks up a Nicholson Bakerish fervor, as when Nicholas observes, wonderfully, that after sex Julia's vagina "smelled like almonds, cinnamon, my fingers, gerbil fur, a gym locker, honey, hot tar, lox, pond mud, raw beef, sea water, and a field of heated weeds, and tasted like apple cider, cinnamon, Julia's blood, my lips, olives, sea water, and wild mint." "Snakebite Sonnet" brims with such moments; its charms are easy, offhanded and alive.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

MORE FROM Dwight Garner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------