BOOKS: FICTION: What blokes do on holiday

BY ANDY BECKETT
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JOANNA TROLLOPE likes William Boyd. So does Granta - four of the nine stories here appeared there first. Part escapist storytelling in exotic locales, part blokeish pondering of the transience and difficulty of things, this collection shows how Boyd touches these disparate cultural bases, keeping Waterstone's happy in the process.

"Alpes Maritimes" is a typical template. An English student, pretending to study at a language school in the South of France, chases a broad-shouldered German girl as they drift sunnily through villa parties and nighttime beach trips. It's the '70s, before things turned nasty: they hitchhike without a care, listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash out on the terrace, and watch the lights across the bay. But Boyd skews the English boy's position, making him go out with the sister of his object of desire. And that desire, it turns out, is really just the wish to frustrate a humourless American on the same romantic trail. At the end the Englishman gets the girl, then does nothing: winning her is enough in Boyd's little lesson about jealousy and possession.

"The Dream Lover" is a virtual repeat, this time with a French girl and the Englishman more deferential to the American - until the time comes to cut him down to size. Again Boyd's neat, short sentences shoot you through the story's shifts and turns with economy and acceleration. He uses a few ambitious images - like "the ephemeral lunar greyness" of the Mediterranean dawn - but keeps abstractions and descriptive passages to a minimum.

There's a masculinity to his directness that matches the stories' interest in chasing girls. "Hotel Des Voyageurs" reads like a fantasy: a brief encounter with a French mayor's wife as the narrator waits to get his car fixed. But it isn't trash (or worse); Boyd's male characters are invariably disappointed in love or lust, just as his travel writer's settings always turn out to be less than paradise.

However, Boyd's famous gift for establishing place is both a strength and a weakness here. Read together, some of the stories seem to have ambitious locations for their own sake: you leap from modern Los Angeles to 1930s Lisbon to First World War Vienna, impressed, but increasingly aware of a vein of authorial showing-off running through the pages. A couple of the stories are little more than tricky exercises, and the repetitive use of descriptive motifs like "banana-yellow" raises your suspicion that the prolific Boyd is running off exotica by the yard.

But even his predictable story-telling can captivate. The title piece leads a young West African film director into the familiar minefield of Hollywood, to see his work unsurprisingly buffeted by exploding egos and rivalries. Yet Boyd keeps you reading, through technique - telling the story from an increasing number of points of view - and through images: the director shoots his masterpiece in the first motel he sees after leaving the airport, in an area the studio executives are too scared to visit.

There are bits of more original, self-questioning cleverness, too. "Never Saw Brazil" alternates scenes from an absurdly steamy Latin city with fantasies of South America, dreamt up by a radio cab operator "in the chilly dusk of a back garden in Hounslow". Is the cab operator a suburban Boyd reader? Or is he Boyd? (He was born abroad but lives in London now.) What's clear is that Boyd has an idea about what people find appealing in his books. I suspect Joanna Trollope does too.

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