BOOKS FICTION/POETRY: Age, and the only end of age

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The Independent Culture
THE LAW OF ENCLOSURES by Dale Peck, Chatto pounds 15.99

DALE PECK's first novel was called Fucking Martin. Present participles in titles are often dodgy (with the grand exception of Henry Green); they sound so immediate (and what could be more immediate than that one?) that they can date without warning. As a title, The Law of Enclosures improves greatly on its predecessor. It is serious, suggestive and forceful. It is also seductively boring.

The book itself deals with married love, its compromises, roots, consequences and destination. Henry and Beatrice meet at college. They are very young. He is skinny and bald, and there is a suggestion that he is mortally ill.

"Every part of her body was bigger than his, and beautiful, and he wanted to crawl inside. 'Beatrice!' he said, and he crossed the few feet to her bed and fell to his knees, his upper body splayed across the foot of her bed. Beatrice in a calm voice, only said 'Henry?' 'I'm dying,' he whispered, 'I'm as good as dead.' At his words Beatrice turned out the light, but the room wasn't dark enough to hide her smile ... That night Beatrice stumbled over death, but it was dark, and she was tired, and she believed that she had stumbled across love."

Many of the difficulties of the book emerge from this passage. It's hysterical, there is a soppy implausibility about the woman's body that smacks of an unstated revulsion, and the dialogue is impacted into the text in a way that makes it slow and hard to reach. Nonetheless, the surprise of that smile in the dark is gently delivered, and we believe in it as we don't in that somehow transsexual female body.

We are shortly transported to the old age of Beatrice and Henry, who are now Bea and Hank. We are not spared the details of their bodily decline, their reliance on drink, the crannies of age and domesticity. There is a well-realised sense of deflation and meagre dinginess too juiceless to be anything so ripe as squalor. The defeats of parenthood, career, illness and mutual disillusion have been many. These passages are mimetically long and largely successful. When Peck sets them against his really fine evocations of nature's force and un-ageing dazzle, the book is at its always painful best. For a very young writer, his grasp of fleet delights and memory's consolations is profound.

The central part of The Law of Enclosures goes far to illuminate quite why this is. Dale Peck has the too-soon-birthed-from-childhood sensibility that goes with early and shocking bereavement. He is a child of violence, sudden maternal death, and many stepmothers. He has slept with women, but is eventually gay. The incrudescence of autobiography to this novel suits its extraordinarily proximate tone, but not its form, that has shuttled between fictional then and fictional now. This section catches the reader up inextricably in the actual past, in the light of whose tilt he cannot but subsequently consider the book and its characters. The admixture doesn't make for a better book, though it has very possibly cleared the way for such a thing.

Further adventures with form take up the melodramatic countdown with which the book ends, a filmic, flickering series of scenes leading down to the death of Henry. It's competently done, though the shade of Tobias Wolf's magical writing on men and hunting shadows the sequence to its detriment.

Love, in age, particularly physical love, is a worthy subject. It's also very difficult. It is more susceptible of classical than hyperrealistic treatment. The problem is that the tender detail subverts the nobility, unless one is in the hands of a writer entirely in control of a - transparent - style. Otherwise, disgust and fear, not even so far away from the bodily lives of the young, can intervene and corrode, leaving the impression of something that is not always distant from cruelty, even satire.

At its best, this novel captures an America where you court the receptionist from your office with a bunch of chrysanthemums, a tuna melt and a pornographic video, yet where people are simple-headed enough to trust to love. At its worst it's out of control, cluttered and inattentively written.