BOOK REVIEW / Pyrotechnics of loathing: Pompey - Jonathan Meades: Cape, pounds 14.99

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IF Jonathan Meades's first collection of stories, Filthy English, dipped a prissy toe into the sewer that under-runs English gentility, then his new novel flings itself orgiastically into the mephitic effluence. Veering bewilderingly between bombast and bathos, it is a cruel bottom-feeder of a book, a 'motor of obsession'. Preoccupied with what he calls 'the terminal Englishness whose highest virtues are found in unrocked boats, in what's beneath the carpet', Meades lifts the carpet, rocks the boat and produces a vast technicolour projectile vomit.

Pompey has a story, and is tightly structured, though a synopsis makes it sound like magic realism written while on some brain-shredding drug. In the wretched aftermath of the Second World War, Guy Vallender, a fireworks manufacturer from Portsmouth (Pompey), fathers four children by different mothers. Locally there is Poor Eddie, his legitimate child, a gimpy geek with a talent for healing, and 'Mad Bantu', son of a black prostitute, hopelessly damaged in utero by abortifacients. There is also Bonnie, the golden girl born of Guy's quick coition with his sister-in-law, who matures into a rabid junkie and star of porn films. The final child is Jean-Marie, a faggy litle leather boy conceived in the blackout of post-war Belgium. The narrator is one 'Jonathan Meades' (oh no, just when we thought it was safe to go back into the library), cousin to Bonnie and Poor Eddie, who reveals the ways in which these four, ignorant of one another's genesis, poisonously and tragically interweave their lives.

Meades sees conventional mores as a thin tissue of skin stretched over an obscene and suppurating society. His first target is physicality and decay, and he pursues crotch-rot and colostomy bags, teratology and scatology, with the zeal of a brain-damaged bloodhound. In addition he relentlessly pumps up the volume on other contemporary taboos. There is a cannibalistic pygmy-hunt in the Belgian Congo which allows an HIV-like virus, HoTLoVe, to make its fatal leap on to humankind throughout the world. There is a parodic evangelistic sect, headed by Ray Butt, ex-racist and sexist comic and now a raving legless torso, to whose church Poor Eddie lends his weird skills. And of course there is Pompey itself, a dystopian little England, a rocking cradle of disease, sleaze, venality and lubricity.

In Meades's vocabulary, sex is 'rubbing offal', vomit is 'tummy mud', and we get 'sporades', 'glabella', 'spelaean' (three times) and 'ichthyomorphic'. A field is 'bounded by wire on whose barbs flocculated spermatozoa of paste-white wool'. Waves are 'tympanic majuscules'. This florid word-salad contains more than a pinch of Amis fils: fate is 'a bad barman', asthma is 'bad music', and 'bad meat' is everywhere. And yet, in the context, such over-writing is strangely effective. Meades flagellates language and blackmails it into comedy in an attempt to represent with visceral immediacy all the boiling tributaries of human experience.

The novel has all the vigour and bravado of a fireworks display. But after the vulgar beauty has faded, we face a grey ash of burn-out, a misanthropic dawn which prompts the old question: Was it worth it after all? Throughout this faecal gumbo, there are flickers of pathos and mourning. Without them, the book would be no more than a splenetic rant; with them come glimmers of compassion and even humanity to balance the pyrotechnics of loathing. The English novel needs its senses to be violently deranged, and this piledriver of a book, cousin to Scarfe and Steadman, might just provide a kick-start.