Carter Cox is a crummy Buddhist. The 38-year-old magazine photographer has tried to shed his litany of horrendous habits by meditating daily, keeping a journal to record his spiritual insights, even journeying to a weekend retreat—no alcohol, no drugs, no sex—called “Compassion and Wisdom: The Path of the Bodhisattva.” But his road to enlightenment is nevertheless littered with heartless one-night-stands, carelessly stashed DVD porn, mountains of useless stereo and computer equipment, and enough drugs and booze to kill a rhino. Carrying prayer beads in one hand and “seduction supplies” (chessboard, cigarettes, Cormac McCarthy novel, etc.) in the other, he’s a willpowerless player with a nagging conscience, a serial bachelor living in Greenwich Village who hates himself for the bad karma he’s unloading on the world around him. His body feels “like a guest house.”

Keith Kachtick’s debut novel, Hungry Ghost, follows this spiritually messed-up man as he faces his greatest inner-life-in-the-balance challenge: a Christ-loving 26-year-old virgin who just might be his soul mate. The book shouldn’t work for several reasons. For one, it’s in the showoffy second person, the initially jarring “you” format, much like Jay McInerney’s ugly ’80s manifesto, Bright Lights, Big City, another chronicle of an NYC man lost in the wilds of temptation and self-loathing. Ghost is also in the present tense—which doesn’t stop Kachtick from pulling an otherworldly third-act switcheroo that negates the previous 50 pages. It should come off as nothing but a cheap ploy from a writer who has scribbled himself into a corner. And although the settings are a variety of exotic venues—assorted men’s mags send freelancing Carter around the world—there isn’t much plot to be found, although the book’s final few pages strangely morph into something almost akin to a thriller.

But for all of its jarring ploys, Ghost does work—remarkably well. Not only is his dialogue both entertaining and natural, Kachtick could write a primer on pacing; sentences are seamlessly, hypnotically woven, allowing a reader to consume the 322 pages in no more than a few hours. The author is also an inventive travel writer, doling just enough magical details about various foreign lands to make you want to grab the phone and buy a plane ticket. And as sweet, screwy Carter performs his desperation samba between following a higher path and fighting those fiendish blue balls, Kachtick loads Ghost with hilarious, all-too-true moments.

It also helps that Carter and his love interest, Mia Malone, are fully realized characters, the kind of likable, lost people you find yourself rooting for. He’s an irresistible a-hole who can’t (even when he wants to) say no; she’s a Bible-toting tease torn over whether to follow the Big Guy in the Sky or the little guy in Carter’s pants.

“A kind of holy smoke fills your body, your heart, and you realize with breathtaking intensity—you know—that it will be with this woman that you either find or lose your soul.” Carter meets the raven-haired, green-eyed Mia at the Buddhist retreat, in a Woodstock locale he begrudgingly goes to because he’s “tired of not knowing how to connect with people, tired of believing that intimacy, by definition, is a killjoy.” He believes the teachings of the Buddha will set him free—although once he sees Mia, he finds himself following another guide altogether. She, on the other hand, is a devout Catholic, there simply to learn about other faiths. Because they’ve taken a vow of silence—and because they sense inevitable complications—the retreatants communicate only via secretly slipped notes, the final missives deciding that Mia will soon join Carter for a weekend at his city apartment—as friends.

Once they’re together, however: “She can’t decide whether God has sent you into her life as a test or a gift.” And “As your shoulders continue to relax, you wonder: Have I developed a crush on Mia despite her virginity or because of it?” After a romantic—but ultimately chaste—weekend, a swooning Mia returns to her Texas home confident that love will triumph, and a crestfallen Carter returns to his drinking, drugging, skirt-chasing ways, confident that he’s a complete fuckup. But when an Esquire-esque magazine sends him to Morocco and instructs him to bring an assistant, Carter immediately asks Mia, who reluctantly agrees. This time, however, that “as friends” part won’t last long.

Much like fellow Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad John Irving, Kachtick provides gut-wrenching epilogues for even the smallest of his novel’s characters; their lives (and, for that matter, those of all around them) are drastically altered by their interactions with Carter and Mia. This is a rule of karma—”that everything, absolutely everything, we do with our body or mind has a corresponding result.” When it comes to the couple in question, however, Kachtick allows them a bit of a mulligan, a second chance to end a disastrous evening differently.

As it turns out, Carter has to lose everything—his job, his fancy cameras, his all-star libido—before he can finally find what he’s looking for. Kachtick masks his message with an utterly out-there denouement: Going against the lesson he ultimately bestows upon his hero—”Restraint apparently has its virtues”—the author concocts a wild, bloody finale that is as jarring and intense as the rest of the novel is calm and contemplative. Although keeping it zipped initially causes Carter a world of grief, celibacy, it seems, can pay off rather nicely in the end. CP