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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas