BOOKS: Fiction: Greed, sex, drugs and bagels

DAY OF ATONEMENT by Jay Rayner Black Swan pounds 6.99
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WITH THIS rip-roaring tale of two no-hope North London boys made good, Jay Rayner does for Anglo-Jewry what Philip Roth has long been doing for the American variety.

It's not simply that he captures so perfectly the idiom and mannerisms of "the thirteenth tribe of Israel: the wandering Jews of Edgware and Wealdstone", but that in so doing he cuts to the very heart of what it is to be a Jew in post-war Britain.

The fact that he also gives us a real sizzling, page-turner of a story, full of unexpected twists and dramatic denouements, makes this the literary equivalent of a bowl of grandma's best chicken lokshen soup: you can't leave it alone until you've finished it, but you don't want to finish because it just tastes so damn good. The analogy is appropriate because it's chicken soup that makes Rayner's two protagonists what they are.

When Mal Jones and Solly Princeton meet down the side of their local synagogue one blustery Rosh Hashanah in the early 1960s, life does not appear to hold much in store for them. Starting with an idea for home- made chicken-soup machines, however, they proceed to build up a world- beating leisure and catering empire that has, by the mid-1990s, made them multi-millionaires and carried them far from their roots in the suburban badlands of NW9. "Apart, they were a waste of time," writes Rayner. "Two no-hopers scrabbling about in the dirt for the key. Together, however, they were dynamite."

The story of the rise and eventual fall of The Sinai Corporation is told in flashback by Mal, now living in straitened circumstances in a grotty bed-sit in Herne Bay.

As he prepares for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Mal reminisces on Sinai's tempestuous history, from its early days in an office above a Tupperware emporium on the Edgware High Street, through to its eventual implosion in a cocaine- smuggling and share-rigging scandal 30 years later.

It is a tale of greed, jealousy, money, revenge, sex, drugs and bagels, recounted at break-neck speed and with an unfailing eye for the minutiae of the decades through which it passes. It works (brilliantly) as a boardroom thriller, and also, a study in the vicissitudes of friendship, but the real joy of Day of Atonement lies in its spot-on depiction of the eccentricities of modern Anglo-Judaism.

This curious hybrid world of morals and money, of ancient rituals and sharp business practice, of frummers and goys and schmocks and schmalte, is evoked both with fondness and a sharp appreciation for its inherent absurdities. Humour is always near the surface - one girl refuses to perform oral sex on Yom Kippur for fear of breaking the fast - but so are confusion and self-doubt as characters struggle to reconcile the dictates of their faith with the temptations of modern life.

It is this conflict between the inner and outer man, the God-fearer and the money-maker, which lies at the heart of the narrative, and which eventually finds resolution in the once-yearly rituals of atonement. "I am starting to regret," says Mal. "Learning how to say sorry and to feel guilt, and that has to be a good thing."

But enough already. This is an intelligent, uproariously funny piece of writing. Its gags are at times a little forced, but hey, even the best gefilte fish has the odd bone. You won't come across many wittier books this year, and none with as much information about kosher cooking. Mazaltov, Jay. You done well, my son.