THE LAST CIGARETTE

By Jason Waldrop

Mid-List. 193 pp. Paperback, $14

What is perhaps most notable about "The Last Cigarette" is not the book itself, which is intelligent and well written though self-conscious and unengaging, but its publisher. Mid-List Press, a "tax-exempt, not-for-profit small press," was founded a decade ago by writers and editors in Minneapolis, a city that (along with its twin, St. Paul) has long been hospitable to serious writing. It publishes, by its own somewhat immodest admission (on its Web site, midlist.org), "books of high literary merit and fresh artistic vision by new and emerging writers and by writers excluded from publication for reasons of profitability."

Mid-List Press, in other words, is trying to fill the gap in literary publishing that has been left by New York-based firms that are scurrying away from unprofitable and/or risky "mid-list" writing at a most unseemly rate. The future of such books now appears to lie in the hands of this and other, similar small publishers. One certainly can disagree with Mid-List's judgment of specific manuscripts, but its endeavors are admirable and welcome.

Among Mid-List's programs is an annual "First Series Award" for previously unpublished novelists. The prize is publication of the winning manuscript and an advance against royalties; the amount of the latter is not disclosed, but surely it is small. Jason Waldrop is the latest winner; he is a native Georgian, a graduate of Yale who now lives in California, none of which seems to have had the slightest bearing on his strange first novel.

Like much futuristic fiction, "The Last Cigarette" is set in an unspecified place and time; indeed, one of the novel's problems is that it tells us so little about time and place. Were it not for the information given on the novel's jacket, the reader would be hard-pressed to figure out that it is set in a "placid, orderly society" known as "the Nation" where "citizens proclaim spirited, if less than spontaneous, patriotic sentiments" and "go about their daily routines, comforted by the belief that everything is as it should be--as it has always been."

In other words, a revised version of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," an antiseptic, soulless place where people try to retain individuality and dignity in the face of a blandly oppressive state and an equally bland, faceless city within that state. For Paul Weber, a 32-year-old "City Economist" whose vague job is to "predict the effect of various factors--new legislature, world events--on the City economy"--the embodiment of what has been lost in this over-sanitized world is the cigarette, banned many years ago. He sees one on a street and thinks:

"The cigarette--white, slug-like, belly-up--resummoned the old days, arousing countless old objections, the phantom image of the thousands of cigarettes that had once littered our streets. What a luxury it must have been: to smoke through anger or frustration and, when stumped, to go on to the next cigarette, a fresh start, a new hope!"

That is a vivid image and, on Waldrop's part, an original way to conjure the freedoms inevitably lost when any society seeks, in the ostensible best interests of all, to prohibit things that give people relief and pleasure, even if the pleasure is purchased at their own risk. For Paul Weber the cigarette is so freighted with meaning that he sneaks into the National Museum and removes "the last cigarette" from its display there, placing himself at risk of apprehension, punishment and humiliation.

But what ensues is more complicated than that. Paul destroys the cigarette by burning it along with his clothes. As he tries to make his way home, naked, he is given shelter by an alluring woman, Lynn, with whom he soon enters into a complex, ambiguous relationship that is part love, part erotic attraction, part suspicion: Is Lynn a lover or "an informer," an "agent of the City" assigned to hound him? How does all this connect with a retarded boy, James, who attaches himself to Paul; with another woman, Cynthia, who wears a tattoo of the trademark design of an old cigarette called Colonials; or for that matter with Paul's late father, a "logistical genius," a "charismatic man who ran the Office of Secret Operations"?

Against the backdrop of these mysteries runs the subtext of the state's attempt to restore its past by examining the memories of all its citizens. This entails a Dr. Maddox, who interviews Paul at length, positing himself as "the trustee of your memory," and a figure lodged in that memory, a woman known to Paul only as "the Swimmer," whom he determines to track down and whose identity, once disclosed, helps solve some, if not all, of the novel's riddles.

"The Last Cigarette," for all its smarts and its lean prose, has two problems: Its tone is too clinical, keeping the reader at a far emotional distance from Paul, and it is too consciously elliptical. Jason Waldrop surely has better books in him. But even with its flaws, "The Last Cigarette" is far more deserving of publication than most of the fluff that Publishers' Row emits these days.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.