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Books: Fear and loathing from Newmarket to Las Vegas

Twelve Grand by Jonathan Rendall Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 10, 250pp; Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Laura Thompson hedges her bets but appreciates some good value from this wayward punter's odyssey
THIS IS a clever book, with a vulnerable heart inside its tough outer shell. It is far better than it would have been had it obeyed its original brief: that Jonathan Rendall's pounds 12,000 advance should be spent entirely on gambling, and that the book should be an account of those bets.

It is a nifty-sounding idea, but one that could have produced nothing more substantial than an extended exercise in journalese: vignettes of betting shops, casinos, Vegas, Newmarket, while the writer excites himself but not his readers as he commits frottage with the low-lifers of the gambling world.

Rendall gives us something more interesting. His book deals in many smoke- stained cliches, but seen through an artistic eye. He purports to be telling his story: that of a sickly, struggling writer-journalist who gambles his pounds 12,000 while reliving events from his past. However, at the end he reveals that everything - apart from the bets - is a fiction and that "Jonathan Rendall" is a persona. This has a disorientating effect - even though we may have guessed it - as the feeling persists that some of the "fiction" is very much truth.

Indeed, this other Jonathan feels like his creator's alter ego: the person, perhaps, whose presence many writer-journalists dread to acknowledge in themselves, the "freelancer" still chasing demeaning assignments in his mid-thirties, disappointed and alcoholic and grimly susceptible to the "significance" of a winning or (far more likely) losing a bet. Twelve Grand is this poor generic bastard's life story.

Some passages are more successful than others. The opening, in a doctor's surgery, is absolutely cracking. So too is the childhood description of watching the Derby - "Mill Reef was rolling his head as though he was laughing" - although someone should have noticed that even the fictional Rendall cannot have backed Mill Reef, who won in 1971, the year before he backed Nijinsky, who won in 1970.

The account of a love affair with an elusive table dancer, pursued from New Orleans to Las Vegas, is far more convincing that it might have been. However, some of the other characters fail to come to life, and the narrative voice does not always live up to its own standards of crisp subtlety. The tired and emotional telegraphese - "Run out of G. Pils. Don't replenish. Minrl watr or nothing" - moves dangerously close to Bridget Jones territory. The looming influence of Martin Amis upon modern male prose ("Went through half the Cuba and chained a few fags") sometimes makes the Rendall persona seem like a straight amalgam of John Self and Richard Tull.

On the whole, Twelve Grand convinces. The descriptions of the bets ring hilariously true: "No winners but cld. see why Walter tipped them. Value runs all the way. Two thirds and another second." (Gamblers never mind losing if they get "value".) Strong, simple phrases bring the book to vivid life. And there is, beneath the tricks, a sad honesty which makes you wish that Rendall had completely cut the cord which ties his book to its self-conscious devices, and plunged even more deeply into the difficult waters of fiction.