BOOK REVIEW / Of maggots and men: Coyote by Richard Thornley - Cape pounds 14.99

Click to follow
THIS book has a problem: its protagonist is a poser. A stage acrobat in 1820s London, John Gay strikes attitudes before mirrors, twists and leaps in lieu of conversation, and thinks 'the only thing worth living for . . . (is) to perfect himself as a statement, with whose beauty he might confront the world.' It's not that narcissism isn't often interesting, but Gay's seems so emptily physical, so Schwarzenegger.

Gay's dullness is a blank spot on Thornley's vivid period canvas, otherwise a panorama of equal parts filth and finery, drunken whores and Sadler's Wells, scatological pranks and Jane Austen prudery. Gay's friends caper and seduce as he practises his moves, aloof. Then his little world is rudely invaded: by a theatrical impresario, Edmond Parsloe, and - in the first sign of Thornley's grisly imagination - by a maggot that lodges in his head and starts to drive him slowly mad. This pain and Parsloe's promises of success persuade Gay, despite having 'very little notion what the rest of England was like', to flee to America.

The voyage is a nightmare. Locked below decks in tiny cabins on a battered merchant ship, Gay and Parsloe fight with their fellow passengers, each other, and the tedium. The writing shifts from social dissection to violence as a succession of near-biblical disasters strikes. A storm cripples Parsloe, floods the ship, swells her cargo of books and cement into a deadweight, and leaves 'her prow straining upward like the nose of a swimming dog' as she limps into New York.

There, the plot eases back into comedy as Gay and a fragile Parsloe struggle to put on a production of Mother Goose before audiences of rowdy Anglophobics. The writing is witty for a few chapters (a 'rude and tedious' David Crockett appears at a backstage party), then suddenly grotesque again, when Parsloe dies in a stage accident and is eaten by insects. The constant is Gay, still self-absorbed, still hoping that 'an exact formulation of movement may unlock the greatest secrets'.

But the maggot is burrowing deeper into his head. Now in agony, Gay flees into the emptiness of the American interior. The book's earlier glimmers of gore and brutality blur into one long ordeal for Gay, trudging on as 'the sun scraped at the sockets of his eyes'. It's a malevolent American landscape familiar from Cormac McCarthy and William T Vollmann, but one where Gay finally comes to life, his posturing distilled to a primal cycle of walk-kill- eat. And Thornley's imagery thickens into a rich stew of beauty and menace. As Gay walks across a flower-covered prairie, he 'floated on a rippling pond of colour . . . his ankles were bloodied red . . . he trod upon a mat of tangled dead growth . . . the prairie was nothing but a writhing web.'

Gay starts to hallucinate, fogging the precise turn of events. He is stalked by a headhunter to a ruined Indian village, and the plot boils up, first

stomach-turning, then mystical, into a steam-cloud of concluding ideas that never quite condenses. But Gay is alive, his deadening vanity thrown off, and the maggot with it, and that's enough of a resolution.