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Slide, the singly named protagonist and narrator of Eskor David Johnson's "Pay as You Go," launches into an amusing litany of complaints about his crummy apartment before the first page of this strange, beguiling debut novel is turned.

"The toilet isn't flushing properly … sometimes at night, pieces of paint are landing in my mouth and I wake up choking … the windows are dusty and they don't look out onto anything … the microwave never heats up my food … the stairway smells … and why is the TV remote always dead?"

An immigrant newcomer to the fictional megacity of Polis, Slide has marginal employment as an apprentice to two bullying barbers and a tiny room in an apartment with two oddball roommates. Slide's attempts to improve his standing — find his own apartment, his own shop, maybe a girlfriend — drive this book, which stays entertaining, clever and mysterious throughout its 500 pages.

A big talker and frequent whiner who speaks in a humorously stilted jumble of clichés and exaggeration, Slide's hapless struggles give "Pay as You Go" a comic vigor even as his journey heads into dark places. This feels like a shorter book, packed with lively characters, colorful scenes, plot twists and action sequences that justify its title page description: "A Fable."

Johnson's prose hums right off the page, rife with winding, poetic sentences and arresting images. A woman with a metal rod in her arm uses it to shatter a window during a chaotic escape. A gang of small-time mobsters is peopled by a "barely tamed devil," their leader a hulking weightlifter with "the air of a minotaur." A helicopter rides over Polis in blackout just as power is restored, "instantly so bright I thought a great bomb had gone off."

Slide remains something of a void at the book's center. Described only as a "blackman" of about 25, his background is blank beyond fleeting references to past trauma. His life constantly on the verge of disaster, he reels from his tenuous rental situation to a dysfunctional group home, through a massive urban flood, into the clutch of mobsters, and finally into the heights of Polis society.

As Slide stumbles from one slippery circumstance to the next, his struggles against an indifferent-to-hostile city make him an avatar for the struggles of immigrants and the downtrodden. The calamities that befall him are described with a gritty, elemental power that masks their contemporary relevance: climate change and the social consequences of extreme economic stratification, in particular.

In its endless confused sprawl, its dizzying diversity and density of human experience, Polis could stand in for nearly any world metropolis. Much of the book's delight is in watching Johnson fashion Polis into existence, just a few surreal ticks off reality.

There's a lot to process in "Pay as You Go." Johnson might have considered occasionally slowing down and drilling more deeply rather than skimming across so much surface. A late-in-the-book plot development concerning viral stardom feels rushed and predictable.

But it's easy to forgive a few missteps in a debut novel this ambitious and stylishly written, one that marks Johnson as a talent to watch. "Pay as You Go" ends as it begins, with Slide musing on the mysteries of a city he's only just starting to understand: "It's no use trying to burn this place down, I was wrong about that. We would just make another."

Pay as You Go

By: Eskor David Johnson.

Publisher: McSweeney's, 500 pages, $28.