BOOK REVIEW / Manhattan mystery tour: 'Death of a Fantasist' - Simon Mason: Constable, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IN THE literary pantheon of noisy buffoons, they don't get much noisier than Geoffrey Cecil Dudley, editor of Humanities Monographs at The Learned Press in Oxford. The monstrous creation (his creator works at OUP) is a verbose, dilettantish idler, detested by his MD for his 'casual showy way of doing things' - or not doing things, as a sample of Dudley's working day (more accurately described as an extended lunch) demonstrates.

Simon Mason skilfully plays this for broad farce, catching Mrs Dudley with her knickers down, extra-maritally, for good measure. He conjures up Oxford with crisp economy, then whisks Dudley off for one nightmarish week in the very place where his self-important monologues - 'monologues were his forte and his refuge' - and his fascination with medieval quest literature are least likely to impress: Manhattan.

Dudley's malcontent friend, Martin Prout, has amazingly been nominated as Best Advertising Actor of the Year and Dudley tags along, ostensibly to provide moral support, though secretly itching for celebrity himself. He also itches fiercely for the theatrical agent Bella La Rose, who thinks Dudley and Martin are a couple of weirdos.

She calls Martin 'Psycho' (which turns out to be rather apt) and when Dudley approaches her in a restaurant dressed in what he deems to be an American fashion statement (he also goes through a 'Brideshead' phase), she tells him to stay on his feet in case people think he's with her.

Scattered throughout the book are Dudley's pensees (for pensees, read wildest dreams of sexual conquests and rampant fame) which bear no earthly relation to the series of catastrophes that constitute Martin's PR tour of magazine offices, night spots and radio studios. Inexplicably, Martin has taken to claiming that he spent his youth locked up in Borstal for sodomising and torturing young boys. Dudley is alarmed to find himself dragged into this lurid fictional scenario on live radio; in fact, lurking secrets from a shared past at a minor public school do give a mysterious undercurrent to the book.

In its focus on Brits in America, in the blathering conceit and absurdity of Dudley, even in the emphasis on physical details such as Martin's shortness or Dudley's 'tired hair', this novel is inevitably reminiscent of Martin Amis. Its well- crafted comedy gets blacker and blacker until suddenly the reader finds the balance has shifted: there is real menace in the air.

Mason clearly enjoyed painting his Manhattan background a shocking red - the sleazy strip club, the grotesque advertising award ceremony, the gym/nightclub where instead of dancing you pump iron - but he has unusually fine control over his material. He is often very funny and sometimes deeply unnerving, and this is only his second novel. His first, The Great English Nude, won the Betty Trask Award, that bountiful memorial of a romantic fiction writer that so often seems to go to cynical and talented young men.