This debut novel is so original and spirited, so thrillingly alive, that it's apt to turn readers into proselytizers on behalf of their new favorite writer.

The main character in "The Sly Company of People Who Care" is an Indian in his mid-20s who's back in Guyana four years after his first visit to the small South American nation. Back then, he was a journalist assigned to cover an international cricket match, and his stay, he explains, had been "a week of bewilderment and curiosity, moods and images, names and rhythms, contours of a mystery world one could perceive but not grasp."

Now, for reasons that are unclear even to him, he's returned -- on the run, it seems, from a vague but growing sense of disillusionment with the cultural expectations he faced at home in Bombay. In essence, he's trying to find his identity by losing himself in the jungle.

Early on he falls in with what's known as a "porknocker," a prospector who mines the soil for precious gems. Together they navigate the Potaro River, alighting in a tiny village near the epic Kaieteur Falls. "Anywhere else Kaieteur would have been a hive of tourists ... five times the height of Niagara, and so much greater than the statistic," he writes, seasoning his prose with flavors of the country's Caribbean patois. "But this was Guyana. Nobody touch she."

Before long, the narrator -- we never do learn his name -- is off to another part of the country, where he makes friends with an eclectic bunch of people. From one of his pals, a fat and gregarious man who seems to be among the crowd at every wedding in the country, he gets a tour of the local party circuit. From another, he learns how to prepare a proper Sunday meal, a process that begins at "dayclean" (dawn) and includes regular intermissions during which the cooks help themselves to a "bounce" of rum.

Finally, with his new girlfriend, Jan, he heads off on what proves to be a heartbreaking trek from Guyana to Venezuela and back again.

Throughout, Bhattacharya forges a palpable sense of place. He writes of the riverside foliage, an "absolute deranged mess of undergrowth, buttresses, roots and vine, a wildness so thick that if a man were tossed in, chances are he would not hit ground."

He has just as nimble a touch when describing city life. Here's his depiction of a journey on a public bus: "At any point someone was liable to yell, 'Mash the brake!' or 'Jam it to the side!' Someone wanted to pick up a roti and fishpie ... by the harbour bridge, someone to drop off a PVC pipe by his aunty."

Everything in these pages feels fresh: the setting, the story line, the prose, the dialogue. Bhattacharya's young protagonist may or may not have found whatever it is he's been searching for, but his journey has most certainly made for an exhilarating first novel.

  • Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.