Books: Every day when I shoot up, I thank the Lord I'm Welsh

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Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub

by John Williams Bloomsbury pounds 9.99

Half way through "The Casablanca", the last of John Williams's eight interconnected stories set in and around Cardiff's multi-racial Butetown, Tony Pinto stands in the office of Bernie Walters, a second- rate showbiz entrepreneur, surveying his gallery of cheesy ten-by-eights: snooker's Ray Reardon, the footballer John Toshack "handing Bernie a copy of his book, Gosh, It's Tosh", and, inevitably, Shirley Bassey. It's a quietly amusing moment, one typical of the book's cocktail of the breezy and the lugubrious. Although is littered with small-time gangsters, drug dealers, bent local government officials and prostitutes on awaydays from the South Wales valleys huddling in pubs or trawling the docklands for business, it is a surprisingly genial affair. At its best, it tends towards an unsentimental melancholy, a yearning for elsewhere that, while less than Chekhovian, is certainly touching.

If, as the book's contents and its brash packaging suggest, the publishers believe they are marketing a Welsh Irvine Welsh, the risks of such a comparison are clear from the outset. Though all but a handful of Williams's characters happily sell, smoke or sniff "recreational substances" wherever and whenever they congregate, there is nothing remotely gruesome on offer, and the stories' narratives, though involving, are occasionally so pacey as to approximate time-lapse photography. A single page of "The North Star" (the tale of Maria and her lesbian pimp's bungled drug deal) covers the prostitute inveigling her way on board a ship, separating herself from the group she has arrived with, seeking out the sailor who conned them, having sex with the man twice to send him to sleep, searching his cabin and discovering money and a bag of cocaine, then attempting to leave the vessel only to lose herself in its warrenous corridors. Readers hoping for Cardiff's Principality Scouse rendered in phonetic prose a la Trainspotting will be disappointed.

includes a number of enjoyably bizarre episodes - the New Orleans-style funeral modelled on a scene from a James Bond film; or Kenny Ibadulla, a hoodlum who once played rugby for Cardiff Boys, opening a mosque on the ground floor of his nightclub only to have it turned over by bogus representatives of the Nation of Islam - but its strengths lie in its structure and characterisation rather than pyrotechnical word-play. Beginning with "Black Caesar's", Kenny's club-cum-mosque, the book closes with "The Casablanca", a venue that was once an old church; incidents referred to in one story are expanded on in another; and characters, most of whom are blood relations, drift in and out, their reappearances another of the book's pleasures.

Williams's sympathy for his creations, palpable throughout, sometimes inclines him towards the Only Fools and Horses school of villainy. Pint- sized Mikey, for example, who travels uptown on shoplifting expeditions when he isn't being knocked about by the women in his life, is one of the best, but Sick Boy or Begbie he is not. Despite its grim implications, the opening line of "The Four Ways" - "Mikey felt it was time he got in on the pimping game" - is a prelude to comic misadventures. Sadness and a soured nostalgia are supplied by Mandy, one of the book's strong women (the men are, by and large, the weaker sex) and Tony Pinto, home after a year in prison, dodging his crooked past and revisiting old haunts on a quest for the mother he hasn't seen in years. It's a tribute to Williams's direct style that this familiar plot is never mawkish.

So what if Williams slides over the corrosiveness of life at the bottom of the heap a little too often, diminishing the impact of Tony's escape in the final story. So what if he scarcely examines the psychological consequences of his hookers' and gangsters' actions. Skimming stones can be as pleasurable as digging. And so what if doesn't do for Welsh fiction what Cerys Matthews and Catatonia have done for Welsh music. It's a good start.