Books: Fiction in brief

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The Trials of Tiffany Trott

by Isabel Wolff, HarperCollins, pounds 6.99.

Bridget Jones has a lot to answer for. We have been assailed by far too many columns and novels, all too obviously pitched as Bridget-with-a- twist: an older/younger/ cleverer/ thicker/classier/more down-market etc singleton. Originally conceived as a long-running Bridget-esque column in the Telegraph, poor Tiff's initial foray into newsprint was dumped when the real Bridget was lured to the paper. But, reborn in novel form, among the swarm of mediocre clones, Tiffany stands out. The story of her attempts to land a man really sparkle as, cultured, humorous and kind-hearted, she picks her way through a maze of small ads, dating agencies, singles-only dinners and Club Med holidays, abetted by a gaggle of girlfriends.

Her quest kicks off when she is unceremoniously dumped on her 37th birthday by her ghastly boyfriend Alex (sloping shoulders, wimpy giggle, partial to playing Scrabble in bed, gives tapestry kits as gifts), himself a successor to a nasty piece of work called Phil, known as Phil Anderer. In her quest for Mr Right she stumbles across men who make these two look mouthwatering. Take Neville, for example. "Neville was wearing a checked shirt with no tie, the top three buttons undone. And in the hairs on his chest was a white, pus-filled boil, like a tiny electric lightbulb." Neville plays ice-hockey and is the proud holder of the world record for break-dancing at high altitude. Or Jake, who attempts to take Tiffany on a first date at Viva Zapata Mexican Bar and Restaurant ("Eat All You Want For pounds 5 A Head"). Or Mungo, the telly presenter who has videoed every appearance he's ever made, including his gripping report on the clam trade in Aberystwyth. Or Ian, whose first wife has only been dead five weeks.

One obvious candidate for her hand pops up early on - her gentle, kind, talented, handsome, suitable-in-every-way ex-boyfriend Kit, dumped by her some years earlier on the grounds he is just too much like her and too good a friend. This may seem annoyingly transparent: of course Kit will suddenly reveal himself as The One After All, probably somewhere near the last page. It's a great relief when he doesn't. In the end, of course, Tiffany gets her proposal, and she deserves it: Wolff makes her quest into a happy romp that slips down as agreeably as ice-cream.



by Richard Price, Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99.

The author of this novel is neither young nor black nor unemployed. He is not a crack dealer, nor a junkie nor a streetcorner hustler, and he is never likely to be beaten up by the cops if he wanders into a white neighbourhood. Which is a pity in a way. Because he writes so incomparably well about all of the above, and so much less well about other aspects of American life, that perhaps it would be better if he did not stray too far from the housing projects.

In Freedomland, the author of Clockers takes us back to Dempsey, a run- down, mainly black city on the Jersey shore of the Hudson, with the towers of Manhattan nearby but always oddly remote on the skyline. Brenda Martin, young, thin, white, a single mother, hoves into view on page one with two injured hands and an ugly tale to tell. She has, she says, been carjacked: a black man has hauled her out of her Toyota Camry somewhere near the projects, the Armstrong Houses, and then driven away with her infant son Cody asleep on the back seat.

Predictable explosions of outrage and outraged innocence follow. The media descends like an Assyrian horde. The projects are sealed off and police from a neighbouring white municipality invade, kicking down doors and breaking jaws. The residents are enraged, fires burn, black marchers set off for white neighbourhoods, a man is killed, Brenda's brother (a policeman) punches everyone in sight, ill omens abound.

All this is seen through the eyes of Lorenzo Council, a black policeman, and Jesse Haus, a young lone-wolf reporter on the Dempsey Register, and much of it is realised brilliantly: the media encampment an "electronic camp-fire a quarter of a mile away, an Islamic skyline of hot-lit discs and spires": the summer heat that "powers its way into the living room like a brass band": the cruel, anonymous night-time phone calls to Brenda - "Mommy, come get me ... Mommy, I'm ... out here".

This is Price's territory, a land of breezeways and Roach Motels, sex and dope, sirens and morgues and tenement stoops, and he leads us through it with a tracker's assurance. When he enters more difficult terrain - the human heart, or merely a criminal motivation - his assurance begins to fail, and this vast novel starts to wobble.

Price adopts, here and there, a rather stately Faulknerian tone - nothing necessarily wrong with that, but Price's characters are destined never to attain the stature, the bitter patience, of Faulkner's men and women. As the novel goes on, the writing acquires a new and rather unpleasant sheen, the oily brilliantine of not quite first-rate television drama situation-tragedy. Characters feel the urge to tell the world how much love there is inside them: speeches end in a "chirrup of tears" and there is a lot of gazing "blindly" and "numbly" at walls or other surfaces.

This mix of half-baked emotion and blurred reality is fatal not only to our sympathy for the characters, but even to the construction of a sensible plot. Cody's death, it turns out, is the result of a trivial domestic accident, for which no-one could possibly be blamed. Price has not been bold enough to make Brenda actually wicked. But all the "hurt" and "rage" and "pain" and "love" which is inside (where else?) his characters is too good to go to waste; it must be unfurled and so it is, yet the invention of the car-jacking incident by Brenda in these circumstances is incomprehensible - a fact that all the parties concerned, writer, characters and readers - must try and forget. Melodrama, it seems, requires more than just a willing suspension of disbelief, it also relies on a marked degree of amnesia.