Books: Signal failures for the paranoid producers

Nicholas Royle tunes in to trouble on the studio floor
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The Silent Sentry

by Chris Paling

Jonathan Cape, pounds 9.99, 248pp

CHRIS PALING is the literary authority on male breakdown and midlife crisis. He demonstrated this in his third novel, Morning All Day: a big step up from the flawed but enjoyable Deserters, which itself had the hard task of following the acclaimed After the Raid. Now, in , he picks through the wreckage of Maurice Reid's disastrous life, showing all the compassion we have come to expect but with added wit and a well-judged sense of comic timing. If there are fewer laughs, Paling's sense of humour does remain intact, making sure the effect of the concatenation of disaster is not merely to numb.

A radio producer at the Corporation, Maurice is keeping his head down while the winds of change whistle round the corridors of power. For a man who discovered his wife and another woman coated in flour while "performing cunnilingus complicatedly on each other" on the kitchen floor and who finds himself homeless when his girlfriend kicks him out of her flat, he's notably chipper. He may be a victim, but he's a survivor, too.

Keeping him sane - just - is his contact with his young son, whom he sees all too rarely. The changes at the Corporation are a constant, vague threat; of more immediate concern are the machinations of colleagues. Why is fellow producer Warde suddenly behaving so oddly? What might his editor, "Peculiar" Edwards, be planning? Which way will Elaine, alternately motherly and predatory, swing? Whom should Maurice trust with the rumours about presenter Roy May and a girl in a hotel room? Not Val, who pinched Maurice's wife and earns her crust in the tabloids.

The squalid specifics of toilet-bowl realism - the filthy flat where Maurice rents a room, the tart he picks up in a pub, the bloody broken nose - are thrown into sharper relief by such beautiful ideas as Edwards's planned "White Symphony", an hour of radio silence, and lovely images such as the smoke of a woman's cigarette trailing "over her shoulder like a steam train".

The novel is also richly textured with visual details of the audible medium: the blue baize and blue plugs, big German tape decks, a "long, sleek flight desk with thirty faders". The level of verisimilitude is maintained when it comes to the producers themselves. Radio virgins entering a studio to be interviewed for the first time will be a little less naive if they have read Paling's novel.

The author, of course, works in BBC Radio, although the jacket blurb coyly fails to record the fact. It's an irony that will not be lost on him that any possible radio feature on his novel, which will no doubt be closely read by BBC producers, is unlikely to reach the airwaves. And if it does, and the powers that be catch R4's Front Row in the limo on the way home and hear what life is like down on the studio floor, who knows how much longer Paling will be working for the BBC?