Books: Redeeming features on the Street of Shame holds it head high

Shock, horror: against the odds, Britain's celebrity journalists have written some halfway-decent novels. Hold the front page, says Man and Boy by Tony Parsons HarperCollins, pounds 12.99, 298pp; Starcrossed by A A Gill Doubleday, pounds 9.99, 304pp
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The Independent Culture
A BIG fat fly used to be a regular guest on the Late Show. It would bumble from guest to guest sampling sweat and opinions, but never seemed able to settle. The fly turns up in Tony Parsons's latest novel, about a TV producer called Harry Silver. There's a bolting wife, and an abandoned son. Like the fly, these things have featured in Parsons's life.

Man and Boy is a touching novel. The sorrows of the child, mourning his departed mother, and the love and admiration of Harry for his own father are caught with plain words and simple dialogue. There's a moment when young Pat is taken to the park by his father and grandfather, and learns how to ride his bike without stabilisers. This is a bit of an obvious device to show two older men setting a child off on life's road, but there's no affectation in the writing. When Pat comes whizzing through the park, riding properly, the scene is lit with genuine joy.

Man and Boy is full of quiet tenderness, and written from the heart. It belongs in a movement by male writers to discover the dark interior of domestic life - the heroic battle with prams and shopping, the gut- wrenching drama of the school gates, the cold fear of the hospital ward. Yet the three long-legged lovelies - one blonde, one redhead and one brunette - who share Harry's bed may be products of the imagination. They seem curiously like the sort of gels James Bond used to sport with, and there's a certain schoolboy charm to the way Parsons has conjured them up here.

A A Gill also awards his hero, John Dart, some top totty in Starcrossed. Dart is a humble bookshop assistant with poetic looks. In the manner of those tales that have the kitchen wench scrubbed and brought to the master's bedroom, Dart is taken up by a superstar, kitted out with a new wardrobe and credit card, then launched into the world of the rich and famous.

Like the kitchen wench on the loose in the castle, Dart tastes the nectar of privilege. His uncoy mistress takes him to the South of France, shows him the splendours of life for the truly rich, then dumps him back in his old life to weep among cinders.

In his old life, he has a dull grind of a relationship with a girl called Petra and a handful of friends joined by apathy and aspiration. Clive, who also works in the bookshop, is working on a piece of erotic fiction involving a man and a mermaid. They are having problems making ends meet - a joke that wears thin. What doesn't wear thin is Gill's perception of the difference between the life of the super-rich and the renting poor. As the hero parachutes into both worlds, a bitter edginess sharpens up the writing.

Viciously executed portraits of thinly-disguised figures add another unkind pleasure to the plot, which shifts along as you would expect until the last quarter. Lee, John's singer and actress girlfriend, takes the part of Antigone on the London stage. This gives Gill the chance to vent his spleen on the theatrical world It also allows him some wonderful writing on the nature of fate and free will. This is a surprising turn and, if the end falls a little flat, that doesn't detract from the power of these unexpected passages.

Having been irked by Zoe Heller's newspaper column, I was up for hating her first novel. Yet the writing in Everything You Know soon won me over: "Thanks to a series of laser treatments, together with one drastic face- lift performed by a hack surgeon she tried to sue, she wears a perpetual expression of parched exhilaration. At forty-whatever-she-is, she is a palimpsest of surgical enhancement."

Willy Muller is gazing from his hospital bed at the weird roiling features of his girlfriend. Muller served time for the murder of his wife but was released on appeal. Quitting England, he has earned a living in America by ghost writing. The arrival of a diary, written by a daughter who has killed herself, pulls his past and present together.

The book moves from the diary, to the trial, to Muller's cynical narrative. He returns to England to make peace with his surviving daughter, who lives on a council estate with a drug addict and is as flinty and calculating as her father. Heller's work is an unsettling mix of loving and loathing, shot through with wit and some great passages of writing.

All of this comes as a bit of a surprise. Time was when you could rely on journalists to produce novels that lurched along from one re-worked cutting to another. As they clung to a ricjety plot-line, these creations only seemed to exist so that the writer could tick "novel" off the list and then stagger on to the next career move. Yet Parsons, Heller and Gill have made a real transition, with the alterations in rhythm necessary to shift from journalism to fiction.

So has Peter Bradshaw, although Lucky Baby Jesus contains an ode to the world of staff journalism. "Many was the time he had allowed a heavy-laden Tippex brush to linger at his nostrils... The Xerox's faint hum reverberated in his blood, and the flash and sweep of its reproductive mechanism was a treasured stimulus." It brings a tear to the eye to those of us flung out of Arcadia, and forced to live in a world without stationery cupboards and visiting photocopier engineers.

Sean, the protagonist, has made the career move of pretending to be gay but right-wing. This has brought him wealth and power with the editorship of Somdomite, a gay style magazine, but stands between him and the girl of his dreams.

Unlike Gill's hero, Sean has close friendships that go back to childhood. They are an odd bunch, his mates: Nick is running a racket treating the mental problems of the rich with press-ups and rowing machines; Ysenda works for a cash-starved Catholic research institute and has luxury chocolates biked round on expenses; Wayne is turning into a celebrity after appearing in a cult gangland movie based on Cardinal Newman. Love affairs rise and fall, although farce is always lurking in the wings. Tender in the romantic moments, with a great supporting cast, this is a fine and funny piece of work.

It's a bold move for a journalist to sit down and peck out the words: Chapter One. Knives will be whetted on the stone from the moment that they do it. Yet each one of these writers has succeeded. Fellow hacks won't necessarily be pleased; but readers should be.

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