Books: Barking up the Norman Wisdom tree

Dog Days by Daniel Lyons, Bloomsbury paperback original pounds 9.99
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Daniel Lyons's first novel is a sharp, funny affair of the heart and the head, and, though it is more a montage than a single coherent picture, most of the bits and pieces are agreeably assembled.

It does, however, suffer from the Norman Wisdom effect...

Let me explain. It has always struck me that comedy, however brilliantly constructed or performed, needs to awaken at least a glimmer of sympathy in its audience, even if it is only of the "thank God it's not happening to me" variety. Otherwise it's not funny. The problem I have with Norman Wisdom is that, instead of identifying or sympathising with his comic character, I always find myself on the side of his antagonists. This makes it difficult to laugh.

Similarly, I frequently found myself out of synch with Lyons's narrator, Reilly, a 24-year-old computer whiz who brushes up a little too closely with some unsavoury fringe Mafiosi in Boston, USA. When his sidekick and software- genius guru, Evan, girlfriend Maria and others urge him, as they often do, to take a course of action which logic, loyalty, good sense or prudence obviously dictate, one can only say Amen. And when Reilly, without discernible motive, takes the opposite course, the sounds that rise in the throat are those of exasperation, not laughter.

Unlike Norman Wisdom, however, Lyons provides more than enough comic compensations in this relentlessly paced hokum. And, unlike Wisdom's very old-fashioned British humour, Lyons's style is very up-to-date American. The dialogue and first-person description are fresh and funny with a rarity- value irony that travels well across the Atlantic.

The action mostly turns on Reilly's reckless abduction of a super-greyhound from the clutches of a local mobster - whose goat has already been decidedly got by our hero parking his car in the Sicilian's special space. The dognapping prompts such priceless narrative observations as: "There are worse things, I suppose, than having to give a dog an ice water enema. But right at the moment I couldn't think of any".

Indeed, the many witty or wide-eyed personal reflections with which Lyons studs his narrative constitute the principal pleasure of Dog Days. Reilly's confusion about his feelings for women, for example, have an authentic ring of innocence and, as in the following passage, an appropriately convoluted frivolity:

"How, one wonders, is it possible for a man who has spent the night making love to a beautiful woman, and who is now having lunch with yet another beautiful woman, to be startled and struck anew by the sight of a pair of breasts, as if he has never seen breasts before, as if he were a baby, roused and hungry, yearning for milk?"

There is a guiding morality here, shaped partly by the hero's Catholic upbringing. As with any kind of morality, it stems from an appreciation of human weakness. But, in contrast to the strictness of Catholicism and the pained realism of older, more experienced writers and protagonists than Lyons and Reilly, it is directed towards keeping everybody young and hopeful.

When the writing does occasionally take on a harder, satirical edge - as in a sequence depicting the casual bigotry of redneck America - it soon breaks open to reveal a soft centre. As the book reaches its conclusion, with Reilly, Evan, Maria and the abducted dog - pursued by the ugly gang boss and his uglier gang - having driven desperately across America into the path of a deus ex machina, Reilly meets up with his widowed mother. She tells him to choose love when he has the chance and turn his back on the temptation of quick megabucks (a temptation dangled at various points in the story in the manner of an illusionist who, though brilliant, keeps reminding you that he is an illusionist).

She makes her point by recalling a squandered love. For a moment, it seems that she is wistfully regretting having married Reilly's father. But no, the other man came along after her husband died.

But despite such corny cop-outs, this is an entertaining and, at times, hilarious tale. Daniel Lyons is clearly a bright talent who could develop into a major comic writer. That is, if he lasts long enough and doesn't fall prey to the kind of imagined destiny portrayed by one of his characters:

'"Everything's accelerating," he said. "Nostalgia used to have a twenty- year lag. In the seventies everyone was into the fifties. But then in the eighties everyone was into the seventies. Now, in the nineties, we're into the nineties. What's left? Nothing. Time folds in on itself, like a black hole. It's the millennium, the collapse of culture. Gotterdammerung."'