FIELDWORK, by Mischa Berlinski; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 320 pages. $24

Mischa Berlinski's first novel, "Fieldwork," is about people who work in exotic fields. It's about missionaries and anthropologists in the villages of Northern Thailand.

These people are dedicated — willing to live without comforts, to labor at a difficult language, to gradually lose their love for their own homelands. They are brave, perhaps even obsessed.

Although "Fieldwork" is much more than a whodunit, there is a mystery at the center of the story. Why did the pretty young anthropologist end up murdering someone? But hers is only one of several secrets in a rambling, challenging and ultimately satisfying plot.

Berlinski writes like he's driving a bumper car. The action veers through time as he tells of the childhoods of the missionaries and of the anthropologist, Martiya. He jumps from history to humor to intricately wrought scenes of village life.

At one point, after describing the miseries of his fictional anthropologist, Berlinski tosses in a chapter about an actual anthropologist — a man who worked in the South Seas and whose biography really has no place in this novel. But Berlinski pulls it off.

"Fieldwork" is told from the perspective of a young journalist, a journalist not unlike Berlinski, because Berlinski himself once worked in Thailand. Some pages into the book, the reader is amused to discover that the narrator is named Mischa Berlinski.

In naming the main character after himself, Berlinski pulls a joke on historical fiction. He doesn't drive the reader to the Internet to learn how much of his history of Thailand is true. Instead we search to learn how much of Berlinski's real life is in his novel.

His story surely feels true, including the part about how the journalist keeps interviewing a family of missionaries until they grow sick of him. He's not tired of them, by any stretch. He can't afford to be, he hasn't learned enough to write the story.

Another truth: The journalist never figures out the culture of Thailand, never learns why a Thai smiles when an American would cry.

Another truth: In Berlinski's book, as in real life, the writer works at the loose ends of his story between naps.

One of Berlinski's clever devices is to talk directly to the reader in footnotes. He notes: "*I'm not making this stuff up. Really. See Otome Klein Huthseeing, 'Emerging Sexual Inequality Among the Lisu of Northern Thailand: The Waning of Dog and Elephant Repute."'

Of course, Huthseeing and her studies actually exist. She's one reason Berlinski is so successful. He relies on her work to produce an appealing blend of odd facts and enlightening fiction.

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