Books: Friends in the north

Noah, Noah by Paul Wilson Granta, pounds 15.99, 342pp; Christopher Hawtree applauds a small-town hero
"GAZE ON something blue... Turn into a windmill." "Then the vegetables began to go off. Janice said she felt nauseous. She asked if they had a gas leak." There's no temptation to muddle the Paul Wilson of The Little Book of Calm with the author of four recent novels which have featured oddball characters whose lives - often troubled by past crises - are eked out at an oblique angle to the universe or, at least, to various parts of the North of England.

To put it like that suggests that Paul Wilson is a dour spirit. Far from it. There is a humour all his own to these accounts of delicate, resilient spirits at the mercy of small-town sharpsters and officials. His eye for the bizarre never thwarts human sympathy, and in Noah, Noah he has produced his finest work yet - the equal of Graham Swift at his best.

An ingenious construction in which reality and even grimmer fantasy intertwine, it carries the reader along at a clip, all the while making one eager to tease out its subtleties. This novel defies summary but makes for a brilliant panorama of postwar England as seen by former orphan Noah (thus christened, for it was a religious institution where the foundling fetched up).

Noah Brindle has been in charge of a fading community centre on a grim Lancashire estate for a couple of decades. His lunchtimes are spent at a nearby cafe whose forthright female owner duly embraces vegetarianism and gives vent to hopes and dreams matched by Noah's creation of a character called Mr George.

Before the war, Mr George arrived from Scotland by train. He exchanged clothes with a local entrepreneur and, attired in a white dinner-jacket, was greeted by the townsfolk as a mover and shaker. In time, he turned his benefactor's home into a liberally-run refuge for orphans which - after a Dartington approach to matters sexual - falls foul of Church authorities.

There is many a hard-luck story in both strands of the novel. But it is managed with such aplomb that, for all its cunningly delayed reversals, Noah, Noah never loses a certain exhilaration and an eye for plausible outrageousness: "Noah had written to the Council eighteen months ago asking for a grant for the roof to be repaired, having been refused funds by the trustees. Four months later, he got a letter back saying that he could have a basketball court marked out in the yard as part of the Council's Basketball Development Strategy. Noah had taken what he was offered..."

Suspension of disbelief is never punctured, even when one is asked to credit the antics of a tame bear which acts as a football mascot (his reported death stirs the heart). Paul Wilson, who displays far more insight into human nature than his namesake, has one marvelling at the way that - without force - his stories merge. They take in such events as the moon landing, with Aldrin and Armstrong as faintly preposterous bystanders at events of far greater consequence.

Here is that rare thing: a novel certain to be on people's lips right now, and around long after the lesser Paul Wilson has shuffled from the scene to take comfort in such banalities as "massage your eyebrows" and "wear Donald Duck underpants". For the price of those gaudy knickers, Noah, Noah offers so much more.