WAKEFIELD

By Andrei Codrescu

Algonquin. 288 pp. $24.95

Andrei Codrescu spent the first 20 years of his life in Romania before he came to the United States and, as such, is a self-styled consummate outsider. He has constructed a career here as an observer-anthropologist, explaining us to ourselves, looking for all that is strange in American everyday life and then passing it back to us -- mostly on NPR -- on the grounds, perhaps, that we often can't see that which is closest to us.

Codrescu is basically an essayist and maker of epigrams, a drawer of clever conclusions. But these considerable skills don't necessarily transfer very well to writing a novel, which, almost by definition, must rely at least a little bit on character and plot.

So: Here's the plot. Wakefield, named after the Nathaniel Hawthorne character who ducked out of his house one day and didn't come back for 20 years, receives a social call from the Devil, who tells him it's death-time and he'd better get ready. Faust-like, Wakefield bargains, not for genius or fame or glory but for a couple of more years -- even though his life is essentially meaningless. (Put more charitably, he's living life at the lowest common denominator -- one ex-wife, one daughter whom he scarcely sees anymore, one "best friend," an immigrant Russian cabdriver who drinks vodka with him in the same bar every night.) Wakefield is a motivational speaker whose professed goal is to de-motivate his audiences, to discourage them and lower their production. When the Devil agrees to let Wakefield live a while longer, he embarks on a fairly typical one-week speaking tour. (In fact, the first place he appears is in a Midwestern wasteland by a town called Typical, where global corporate types have driven out all of the farmers and make futuristic products like talking houses that do all the housework and deliver shots of whiskey on demand.)

The trouble is, we already have houses that do that sort of thing. They are the stuff of features-television, the lighthearted subjects we see in between accounts of the latest wars. When Wakefield describes being in a "middle" airplane seat between two fat folks, most of us have experienced that and don't really need to have the situation explained to us again. The same goes for cell phones and laptops: If we haven't noticed by now that we're being used up by "vampire" technology, this book certainly won't be the instrument to fill us in.

Because the book is constructed around a speaking tour, there's a great deal of speaking by Wakefield, some of it in free verse, some of it in pep-rally singalong: "THECURRENCYOFTHEFUTUREISPOETRY." The audience goes along with this, but it's a little hard on the reader.

The real disadvantage here is that the novel doesn't lend itself to what Codrescu does best. The central section, set in Chicago, revolves around an exhibition of ex-Soviet dissident art. Wakefield's female escort in this city has a Serbian father and a Bosnian mother, who are furiously acting out that war in microcosm. (Except that war is on the back burner now.) From the radio and television stream constant information about the genitalia of the American president, but that guy is definitely not the president living in the White House now. Biting satire doesn't work very well using yesterday's news.

The Devil, we find, is forlorn and disoriented. The world is moving too fast for him; it's hard to tell what's evil anymore, he's plagued by upstart devils, and God is asleep. The Romanian orphans whom Wakefield's ex-wife had championed are teenagers by now. The world is going to hell in a handbasket faster than the speed of light: No wonder the Devil -- and Codrescu -- can't keep up with the grotesqueries, the atrocities, or which genitalia belong to which world leader.

This is a sad book. Wakefield -- despite his cleverness -- is a sad man. I looked up Codrescu's next-to-endless list of speaking engagements and lectures concerning this upcoming novel, and wondered if the Devil hadn't already come calling again. Because the life described here -- one long speaking engagement -- is poignantly far from heaven.