Supposedly this is Zadie Smith's "small" novel, to follow up on her sprawling debut, the 2000 bestseller "White Teeth," but the truth is that (so far) every Zadie Smith book is big -- if not in length, then in energy, in thought and in feeling. A new novel from her feels like an occasion to open up another chamber in your heart and another lobe in your brain to take it all in; some books are expansive, hers are expanding, but never in a dreary, good-for-you way. Even in a year of strong books, "The Autograph Man" is cause to celebrate: To pick it up is to follow Dorothy as she steps out of her marooned, black-and-white Kansas farmhouse into the Technicolor splendor of Oz.
"The Autograph Man" spins out the fate of one Alex-Li Tandem, a dealer in fame, specifically in the signatures of anyone who ever did anything of note. Alex is 27, half-Chinese, half-Jewish, and his best friend, Adam, is a black Jew, born in America but transplanted in his boyhood to the unremarkable London suburb of Mountjoy, where most of the novel takes place. Smith likes to trample over the usual delimiters of identity on her way to portraying a new kind of mongrel world citizen: little bit of this, little bit of that. Alex drinks vile concoctions of Chinese herbs (he doesn't see Western doctors, despite his chronic hypochondria), and he's writing a book of sorts, a massive list of things Jewish and things goyish; he's obsessed with sorting everything in the world into one of the two categories.
Mostly, though, Alex is fixated on himself, even if he experiences this as a preoccupation with movies. He's a yearner, a piner, infatuated with an actress, Kitty Alexander, whose quintessential role was filmed in 1952 and whose autograph is particularly valuable because she gave it out so rarely. Every week, he writes (in care of her imperious fan club president in New York) to the reclusive Kitty, composing poetic little missives that he hopes will persuade her to send him something in her own hand.
Alex also has a real girl, Adam's sister, Esther, every bit as beautiful as Kitty, but less alluring somehow because she's right there. The other people in his life include a boyhood pal turned rabbi, another turned insurance claims adjuster and a pack of sodden, scrofulous low-level autograph dealers with whom he haunts an auction house and a nearby pub, grumbling about the "big boys" who have the cash to trade in top-notch memorabilia. In the evenings, he gets high with Adam, who has discovered God through the combined powers of marijuana and the Kabbalah.
What's wrong with Alex? That's what most of the characters in "The Autograph Man," including Alex himself, keep asking. In the throes of a wicked acid trip he has totalled his car, alienated Esther and possibly forged a Kitty Alexander autograph, much to the alarm of his old friends, who are afraid he might try to sell it. As Alex sees it, he's got "no love, no transportation, no ambitions, no faith, no community, no expectation of forgiveness or reward." (What he does have is quite a lot of hangovers.) In his heart it is "Esther, only her, always," but he hurts her by indulging his persistent if desultory post-adolescent horniness with other women. 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 fact, says Smith, "the great tragedy of his heart is that it always needed to be told a story." Underneath it all, he has not yet figured out how to get over the death of his adored father, but what's preventing him from doing so is a commonplace sort of stuntedness these days: "Above all, he liked to be entertained."
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. 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. 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. Like Adam, we're just lucky -- even if half the time we're too thick to know it.