Marriage is often confusing. Sometimes, to find out if it is worth saving, you must crack it open like a Christmas chestnut and inspect it minutely. Or more often, a cure can be something as simple as struggling spouses getting away together. In Scott Landers' debut novel, Coswell's Guide to Tambralinga, Conrad and Lucy Shermer go the latter route, and embark on a lengthy journey through the politically unstable, exotically violent and depressingly tropical regions of Southeast Asia.

While salvaging their love and spending time together is the ostensible plan, the couple soon find that they are far more interested in striking out on their own. And they do so with a vengeance, exploring their dangerous and sensual new surroundings and the uncharted territory within themselves. Like the man going out for the proverbial pack of cigarettes, Conrad leaves a note and melts into the fringes of the Third World in a tiny fictional country named Tambralinga. Pretty sure that Lucy has cheated on him, he is half looking for a little adventure himself. But a life of American repression makes him little more than a comic bumbler in all sexual regards.

Lucy, the type of woman who underlines passages in guide books and makes copious lists, wishes only to follow her itinerary to the letter. But when she meets a younger female traveler who fuels her competitive nature, she finds herself in compromising situations beyond the pages of her books and notes.

This original, notably worthy debut ably toggles between farce, intrigue and tragedy while capturing the disconnection inherent to westerners in unfamiliar stretches of the planet. But it is Lucy's and Conrad's repeated boorish behavior that keeps this fine novel from soaring. As we're guided through Tambralinga by this selfish, dull and shallow pair, the reader can't help but hope the duo stay together . . . if only to avoid exposing others to their toxicity.

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