Books: Fiction In Brief

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The Independent Culture
A Stranger in the Earth by Marcel Theroux, Phoenix House pounds 15.99. "I am a stranger in the earth; hide not thy commandments from me." Nobody knows why lifelong communist Joseph Littlefair had this phrase inscribed on his tombstone, but it seems to match the determination of his grandson Horace when he decides to swap the rustic charms of Great Much for a junior post at the South London Bugle.

On his first day in the capital, he is ripped off by a cabbie. falls for an illegal immigrant and sleeps rough on Tooting Common; but it takes the unholy alliance of philandering MP Barnaby Colefax and obsessive animal activist Trevor Diamond on behalf of the urban fox to plunge Horace into a true whirl of sex, greed and conspiracy.

I dare say doors were opened by this famous name, but this rendering of the archetypal innocent abroad marks an accomplished debut from the son of Paul Theroux. Scoop and Lucky Jim spring to mind, though Theroux uses a charming wry wit in place of the scathing satire of Waugh or Amis as he casts his eye over the surreal metropolitan mores which most seasoned city-dwellers overlook. Horace's first visit to a nightclub, where he invents a popular new dance by pretending to dig in compost, build a dry stone wall and cook a full breakfast with mushrooms and a fried slice, is a choice example of the topical town-countryside culture-clash which fuels the humour. The plot, if it is a plot rather than a mosaic of carefully observed details and incidents, mixes the humour with racial, sexual and environmental issues without falling into the twin traps of being portentous and patronising. Although it takes the best part of the book to warm to the offbeat characters, most of them would be well worth following beyond the wilfully inconclusive ending. Theroux certainly avoids the fate of Horace as he labours over a fatuous gardening column under the pseudonym The Rambler: "It was, he reflected, complete cobblers, but having written it, he felt the unearthly resignation of a man who had penned his suicide note." Roll on the sequel.

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