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BOOK REVIEW / Trudy Truth, Fry's funny: The hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, Hutchinson pounds 14.99

'WE LIVE in arse-paralysingly drear times,' declares Stephen Fry's anti-hero, the washed-up poet and recently sacked theatre critic Ted Wallace. He lounges lecherous and well-oiled round the Harpo Club in Soho (a lovingly embellished pastiche) until one day he accidentally picks up his own god-daughter, Jane. She puts to him an absurdly implausible and lucrative proposal which propels him off to P G Wodehouseland for a protracted country house stay and the

solving of a mystery.

Ted's mission at Swaffard Hall is to investigate the apparently miraculous healing powers of his other god-child, Davey. Jane is convinced that Davey has cured her of leukaemia. He is the 15- year-old son of Ted's gallingly successful old friend Michael, a man who 'gives off power, great radio beams of pure sodding charisma'. Michael's father, we learn in a judicious digression from Ted's tireless wittering, was a Czech Jew who came to England out of a liking for tweed and formality, and who was also reputed to have a gift for healing.

There are weighty issues here: anti-Semitism; our hungry but somewhat fearful need to believe in powers like Davey's. There are matters of parenthood and growing up which are handled with real delicacy. But Fry got carried away with the epistolary device he has chosen to use. It is just within reason that the wordy Ted actually writes Jane these huge letters which contain verbatim dinner-table dialogue and take up a third of the book. But Jane's replies start to sound awfully like Ted's letters, and so does the correspondence of a houseguest called Patricia whom Ted badly wants to bed. They can't all be windbags. And I drew the line at the diaries of defrocked priest Oliver Mills (or 'Mother Mills') - a sort of Ted in linguistic drag who contrives alliterative girly names for all his nouns: 'Trudy Truth, Amanda Amazement, Sandra Sleep, Daisy Diary'. This almost immediately becomes unbearable.

Meanwhile, most of the houseguests convince themselves that Davey has the power. Only on an individual basis do they discover that he is currently administering his cures through holy sexual acts, which is fine by the old queen Oliver but disastrous in the case of a visiting buck-toothed virgin called Clara and revolting in the case of the sick horse Lilac. Chaos follows mayhem until, Poirot-like, Ted pulls out a red herring solution to the strange goings-on, and effects a secular redemption of sorts for himself and Davey.

Stephen Fry doesn't trust his readers not to slack off unless he keeps them toned up with strenuous wordplay and a kind of rhetorical ice- dancing. He marshals words that, if said aloud, provide maximum labio-dental exercise. Of course, one can hear Fry's own sonorous smooth- talking throughout, just as Clive James's nasal tones are audible in his novels. But here, in contrast to the Jamesian alliterations and hyperbole, we get unbridled mellifluousness, fey tweaks and grandiloquent oaths.

The book may be flawed, but it's funny. Readers need a bit of verbosity and fussing over. They will be pampered by such extras as Ted's tips for putting on clothes when damp from the bath so that shirt and socks will not 'frot and rub frictively', so that 'sir's shirtings and half- hosements will practically leap from the floor and wrap themselves around him in a gladsome twinkling'. There are worse antidotes to drear times.

(Photograph omitted)