The protagonist of Radiant Days, Michael A. FitzGerald's first novel, is a null, a clueless and selfish guy. The year is 1995, at the height of the dot-com boom and Anthony is a "producer" for an Internet startup. He spends his days listening to music, avoiding his colleagues and surfing the Web to find the grossest porn. "My highest aspiration: to jog," he tell us. Anthony has a girlfriend, whom he kinda-sorta loves, until they break up, and she sleeps with his best friend, and he humiliates her. About this, he feels kinda-sorta terrible.

"My life had become silly," he declares. Then one evening he walks into his local bar and meets Gisela, a Hungarian who looks "like she subsisted on Marlboros and Diet Coke." (This means she's drop-dead gorgeous.) Gisela realizes he's a sucker. She asks him to come to Hungary to help find her child, whom she was forced to abandon. Moved less by her story than by her "life-affirming behind," Anthony agrees. A few days later, they arrive in Budapest, where Anthony learns that Gisela is not who she appears. But, since the appearance he's most concerned with is her physical one, that's not a problem.

In Budapest, Anthony spends most of his time masturbating. He also meets the expats -- the requisite loafers, hipsters and posers. One stands out, a young British journalist named Marsh, who's covering the Balkan war. Though cynical and flawed, Marsh is the anti-Anthony: driven, witty and fundamentally idealistic. Marsh offers to help Gisela and, for some inexplicable reason, takes a shine to Anthony.

This brings them to Croatia, and into the war zone. Here Anthony sees much that is not "silly": refugees, anarchic violence, hunger and despair. He takes snapshots, with which he plans to seduce girls at home. After bullets whiz over their heads, Marsh tells him, "Your life is different." But Anthony doesn't really change. When tragedy -- brought on by his own carelessness -- pierces Anthony's bubble of narcissism, his actions become even more unpardonable.

FitzGerald's prose is often lively, but there are only so many pages of masturbation and drug-induced riffs one can take. To the end the only thing Anthony really seems to care about is getting laid.

-- Louisa Thomas is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.


A Novel

By Michael A. FitzGerald

Shoemaker & Hoard. 246 pp. Paperback, $15