Books: Pale Eagle and a cheerleader reunited

Leading the Cheers by Justin Cartwright, Sceptre pounds 16.99

Justin Cartwright made his name with Look At It This Way, a swift, satirical tour of London in the yuppie era. It was particularly notable for its knowing use of symbolism, with the glories of imperial Britain somehow represented by a lion on the loose from Regent's Park.

With Leading The Cheers, his brooding, somewhat melancholy fifth novel, he is at it again. The narrator, Dan Silas, as an English boy growing up in America, lost his virginity in Thomas Jefferson's bed. And as he appreciates, things don't come much more symbolic than that.

We join Silas at a difficult, purposeless time. He has sold his advertising company to the Japanese and split up with his girlfriend after refusing to marry her. One day, waiting for the post with the genuine enthusiasm of the underemployed, he is surprised to receive an invitation to be "keynote speaker" at a reunion of his American high school class.

He realises he will meet Gloria, the second-most beautiful girl in his class, with whom he committed that act of secular sacrilege, back in 1968. He lost his innocence just as America - the link is explicitly made - was losing its own.

But symbolism is no guide to the literal significance of the event in the eyes of Gloria and to the rest of his classmates, who have known about it for years. He arrives to find that he is the subject of the most intense expectations: from Gloria, certainly, but also from his closest schoolfriend, Gary Beaner. This brilliant scholar cracked up shortly after Dan's departure, declaring himself the reincarnation of Pale Eagle, a white boy kidnapped and brought up by the Ojibwa Indians some time before the War of 1812. The delusion, if that is what it is, has become his whole existence.

And Dan is at that dangerous point in middle age when it becomes overwhelmingly necessary to do something, before it is too late. In this case he decides to give these people what they want, and the results are intensely disruptive, especially to him.

This is quite a short novel, 250 spacious, open pages, and it flows easily. The Michigan setting, then and now, is economically evoked with no obvious false notes. But the book has greater ambitions than that. Aside from mulling over the fate of the American Indian, it muses on white America's fear and disillusionment as it enters the post industrial era: Gloria, for instance, once the cheerleader of the title, now works in a year-round Christmas superstore.

Silas being an Oxford philosophy graduate, there are forays into the identity, memory, and the Emersonian roots of the New Ageish solipsism espoused by everyone from Gloria to the serial killer Dan is persuaded to visit in jail. This ugly, frightening episode contrasts starkly with the book's predominant note of contemplation. Along the way, there are interesting, unforced observations, on everything from the cyclical nature of porno movies to the ontological thoughts you have in lonely hotel rooms.

Nonetheless, there is something unsatisfying about the book. It only has three real characters, plus a string of walk-ons, some more memorable than others: Duane, a defiant redneck who insists on eating steak in a seafood restaurant as a sort of All-American statement, brings a welcome note of rude comedy as Dan's difficulties deepen.

The narrative achieves considerable tension as the lives of Dan, Gloria and Gary are drawn closer, but in the end the resolution is less startling than perhaps we have been led to expect. It is Dan, the sophisticate, the cynic, an outsider supposedly insulated by education and European values, who is most affected by his experiences.

A welter of tying-up takes place in the closing pages, and yet the novel seems somehow unfinished, as if this were all an episode, albeit an intriguing one, in a larger story. Of course, I may just be saying that I would have liked more.

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