BOOK REVIEW / Mine's a double, please: 'Mr Barrett's Secret' - Kingsley Amis: Hutchinson, 14.99 pounds

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KINGSLEY AMIS (author of On Drink and How's Your Glass?, laureate of the piss-up and the comic hangover, a committed non-abstainer) also does a neat sideline in the sobering alcoholic. For example, four chapters of his 1990 novel The Folks That Live on the Hill are eye-openingly written from the befuddled perspective of a youngish female addict. The compassionate, darkly comic way his sentences mime her floundering resolution, self-deception, blackouts and helplessness is more successful, though, than the rather contrived manner in which the novel arranges for her to be left in a state of tentative hope.

'A Twitch On The Thread', the most compelling ofthe pieces in this new collection of stories has, by contrast, no difficulty in making the reverse process sound utterly authentic, as it sketches out the situation which causes a long- reformed alcoholic to topple back into addiction. It's a mark of Amis's shrewd sense of irony and timing that the protagonist, Edward, is first firmly established in the reader's mind as a concerned carer, and on two counts: he is the husband of a clinically depressive wife called Ruth, and he is a clergyman. Only then, preceded by a few subtle hints, is the information dropped that he, too, was once in need of desperate care.

Edward's belief in himself as a striking example of God's saving grace is undermined by a most unusual circumstance: the arrival, from America, of a previously unheard-of identical twin, who turns out to be similar to his double in a disconcerting range of ways, not least that he is also a clergyman who has been married to a depressive called Ruth. Symbolic Doppelganger have fascinated writers from Dostoevsky to Conrad to Martin Amis. But there's a bleak twist to Amis senior's approach here, in that he bases the story on recorded scientific data about monozygotic twins separated at birth, and stealthily teases out the philosophical implications.

The Americancomes armed with chapter and verse on the bizarre coincidences which suggest that we are shaped more by heredity than environment. The story then cleverly turns on the irony whereby the one crucial distinction between the two men lies in their attitude to their alikeness. The American is eager to learn that both of them were raised from rock-bottom drunkenness by a sudden ability to pray. It confirms for him a God who can perform supra-logical feats, creating beings at once unique and identical. But the same news destroys Edward's indispensable sense of a personal understanding with Christ, making him see the thread between himself and the deity not as a fishing line but as a puppet-string. The story's final scene, where the mild Edward's inexplicable rudeness is gradually revealed as drunken brawling in a bar, casts a deadly chill.

Three of the six stories tinker with the past. Just as The Alteration imagined a world in which the Reformation hadn't taken place, so '1941/A' poses as a creepily measured textbook account, by the Josef Goebbels Professor of Modern History at Oxford, of America's defeat in the last war at the hands of Germany and Japan. Another, written in the orotund tones of Mr Barrett, reveals the 'real' reason why he adamantly opposed his daughter Elizabeth's relationship with Browning. The proffered explanation is certainly intriguing, though to give it credence would involve making light of the fact that the hung-up Mr Barrett refused to allow any of his children an independent sex life.

Amis's deftness goes on the blink at times. 'Toil And Trouble', which shows a literary agent bizarrely held as a hostage, hinges on the prisoner's ability to detect that his captors are thespians. But the information that he was brought up in a theatrical household is left so late as to seem a lame convenience and I'm not conviced that actors are, as he claims, and as his plot demands, constitutional suckers for a hammy performance. Compensating for such lapses, though, are the many flashes of droll observation (eg, a psychiatrist's 'ferociously guarded optimism' when not ruling out the possibility of some hope, some time in the future) that demonstrate that even non- vintage Amis is a tonic.

(Photograph omitted)