BOOK

“Necessary Errors”

by Rebecca Shapiro
Necessary Errors
By Caleb Crain
Penguin, 480 pages, $16
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Necessary ErrorsPrague, in the fall of 1990, was a city just starting to come to terms with its new freedoms, trying them on like the blue jeans beginning to appear in stores (though inaccessible to most, costing two weeks of a still state-regulated salary). It is, in this way, the perfect sanctuary for Jacob Putnam, a foundling on unsteady footing and the quiet hero of Necessary Errors, the ambitious first novel from journalist and literary critic Caleb Crain ’99GSAS. Jacob, a recent college graduate who left his Boston office job to teach English abroad, quickly teams up with a group of similarly minded young expats, who meet in pubs to drink cheap beer and talk about what they want to do with their lives, while actually taking comfort in avoiding that very choice. As Jacob says, “Being here is what you’re doing, when you’re here.” Jacob has another layer of early-twenties existential angst: he has recently come out of the closet, and Prague is forcing him at least partially back into secrecy, to his frustration, and, at the same time, his relief. There’s not quite enough plot to justify five hundred pages, and the endless banter of the expat circle grows tiresome, especially after one of Jacob’s American friends moves to Prague and joins them. Far more interesting are the supporting Czech characters — a grumpy landlord, a warm-hearted neighbor, a group of politically active chemists seeking English lessons. Between them and his masterful attention to detail, Crain creates a nuanced portrait of a city toddling toward change.

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