At the 1996 Brit awards, the old dear Mrs Merton peered over her glasses and said: "Has anyone here see Charlie? It's just everybody backstage seems to be looking for him." In Cocaine, Phil Strongman, a former music journalist, takes that joke, spins it out over 250 pages, and, by cutting it with a heavy dose of white-powder paranoia, tries to turn it into a "a contempo music-biz reality" thriller.
With its psychedelic sick-coloured jacket and silver lettering, Cocaine promises to be a streetwise and stylish cautionary tale for the Nineties. But although it is set against a Soho `97 backdrop of Mezzo and The Wag, what Strongman actually delivers is a deeply old-fashioned narrative, trapped somewhere between airport novel and boys'-own fantasy.
In a seamy tale of how cocaine makes the music industry go round, the world of the ligger - the professionally guest-listed hanger-on who attends endless champagne parties always at someone else's expense - is laid bare. The simultaneously glitzy and shabby milieu of the showbiz launch, where people engaging in conversation are constantly scanning the crowd for someone of greater celebrity or holding better drugs, is evoked convincingly enough. But Strongman cannot seem to decide whether his anti-hero, Pete, is an innocent lost in evil world of crime barons, or a cynical seen- it-all hack whose own scruples are as dubious as the shadowy figures he is trying to expose with his "scoop" on how cocaine launched a boy band.
At times it feels like Pete's trapped in a Pulp song - sorted, nice one, diamond geezer - without the irony. At others he's as two-dimensional as an article in Loaded, preoccupied with sex, hedonism and and flattering himself that every woman in the room has fallen for his jaded, substance- abusing charms: "This stuff was mind-blowingly strong ... Even passing water was a stunning experience ..."
The book's catchphrase, liberally used, is "yeah, yeah, yeah," but it is we and not Pete, who have seen it all before and seen it done better. Strongman's musings - on the nine levels of sexual pleasure, for example - have an air of High Fidelity, with none of Nick Hornby's talent for observation. Pete's youthfully knowing teenage girlfriend is a faded version of Diane in Trainspotting, with far-fetched psychotic tendencies for added thriller potential. His criminals, meanwhile, are straight out of a gangsta-rap video, and as chilling as a Mark Morrison lyric.
Strongman has his moments, but like a glut of similar novels, Cocaine owes everything to the emerging literary boys' club for the chemical generation presided over by Irvine Welsh. Everyone's caning it, blasted, chopping `em out - the problem being that, like other people's dreams, other people's drug experiences are rarely very interesting unless you're in them.
Next to Bret Easton Ellis's first novel, Less Than Zero, for example - which gently yet relentlessly pulled apart the empty world of cocaine chic - Cocaine has all the moral subtleties of an episode of The Cosby Show. As the Grandmaster Melle Mel, whose hit "White Lines" is never far from the mixing deck in Cocaine, said: "Don't do it!".