BOOK REVIEW / Heavy case load: 'The Absolution Game' - Paul Sayer: Constable, 13.99 pounds; 'Tribes' - Alexander Stuart: Chatto, 13.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NOVELISTS Paul Sayer and Alexander Stuart both made splashy debuts. Sayer won the 1988 Whitbread Prize for The Comforts of Madness, the strange little monologue of a mental hospital patient. A year later, Stuart's The War Zone missed the prize by a well-publicised whisker, apparently because one of the judges hated its graphic treatment of incest. Now they have written new novels with eerily similar outlines: middle-class protagonist, outwardly in control but inwardly crippled, meets proletarian lout in whom he recognises a sinister-pathetic alter ego; drama, violence and murder ensue, followed by healing.

Sayer's The Absolution Game, his third novel, shows the same sombre preoccupation with personal and societal dysfunction as his first. Here, the storyteller is Bob, a social worker who gallops about doing good in a vain effort to avoid confronting his own damaged personality. The setting is a grimy Northern town. Bob's wife, unable to bear his obsessive ministrations among the deprived, left long ago. Fat and 40, Bob is ripe for a crisis, which arrives in the form of one of his cases, Angela, a young battered wife. Angela shrewdly solves her housing problem by moving in with Bob, stirring in him emotional needs long hidden under the shell of his chronic altruism. When she moves on, Bob begins to identify dangerously with another of his clients, Billy Daff, an odd, ugly, doomed, homeless youth.

Sayer's writing is a risky mix of the sociological and the self-consciously literary. There is some painstaking working-class dialogue and some cataloguing of society's victims - alcoholics, down-and-outs, abusers and abused - but the dominant narrative voice is one of highly wrought sensibility. Sayer is an adjective junkie: a smile is 'bevelled', lips are 'violet-greased', a sneer is 'picaresque'. And can Bob the plodding social worker really be the same Bob who observes the town's 'tumbling profile heaped beneath the blue convolutions of the distant moors . . .'?

Just as the novel threatens to sink under its cargo of Fine Writing, it is rescued by a good old-fashioned climax, involving a tense, darkly funny street chase and a dramatic hostage-taking. More important, the prose, freed from its thesaurus gleanings, at last engages our feelings as well as our heads.

If the dust-jacket of Alexander Stuart's Tribes did not tell us that the author had worked in films, we would guess it, not just because the hero is a young film producer, or because little tributes to films Stuart admires are wedged into the narrative, but because the book works like cinema. Short, intensely vivid scenes accumulate with panache, the dialogue is sharp and plausible, the pacing confident. The brutality - cheeks unzipped by Stanley knives, skulls crushed against pavements, a near-rape - is well up to current movie standards. This is a book about sex 'n' violence, but it is not pulp.

Handsome, privileged, liberal Nick Burns, all 501s and carphones, is trying to make a film about football violence. When by chance he encounters some real-life south London hooligans he cultivates their monstrous leader, known as the Neck, because he may prove useful. The film plans fall through, but the Neck refuses to go away and things turn nasty.

Stuart is writing about a sick society in which sex and brutality have become disastrously interlinked. For the Neck, the confusion is catastrophically literal; for Nick it surfaces menacingly in his relationship with his new girlfriend, Jemima. It all comes right in the end, for Nick if not for the Neck, but not before the two men have met in fearsome tribal combat.

Stuart writes so well about bad, dark, dangerous things - physical terror, mindless racism, mob misrule, misogyny, murderous hate - that it is a shock to find him having a slight attack of the Mills & Boons when seeking a language in which to express redemptive private tenderness. When the novel ends with Nick and Jemima rowing serenely down a peaceful canal, we are touched, but also vaguely disconcerted, as though the last reel of A Clockwork Orange had slyly mutated into On Golden Pond.

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