The conflict between assimilation and ethnic pride animates this vigorous picaresque by the Pakistani-born English screenwriter (My Beautiful Laundrette; Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) and author (The Buddha of Suburbia, 1990). Sahid, a ""Paki"" university student in London, finds his emotional allegiances divided among his wish to study literature, write, and, generally, ""follow the rules""--and the various importunings of his career-oriented family (who run a travel agency), his Muslim ""brothers"" (who demand his participation in increasingly confrontational public protests against British racism), and his married instructor Dee Dee Osgood, who has more wisdom to offer Sahid than analyses of Great Books and the subtexts of rock lyrics. Kureishi's plot stumbles right along, rising to melodramatic heights whenever it focuses on Sahid's literal sibling, Chili; on a straying husband with a taste for available women and contraband cocaine; and on a bad habit of double-crossing intemperate drug suppliers. There's also an arresting sequence in which Sahid's friends orchestrate a demonstration supporting Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah imposed on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. The novel's loose construction leads it to a predictably open-ended conclusion, but that seems perfectly appropriate for a coming-of-age tale whose unformed hero can't decide from one moment to the next whether he's to become a dutiful son and brother, a great novelist, or the happily exhausted boytoy of a splendidly voracious woman. Furthermore, Kureishi's ever-so-slightly aslant diction and syntax provide dozens of gratifying little surprises, as do his vivid, off-the-wall metaphors (e.g., ""the city was drenched and slimy, like the inside of an aquarium""). An agreeable mess, but then so is the protagonist--an endearingly distracted pursuer of the Ultimate Good who likes just as well the taste and feel of the here and now.