Books: They've been framed in cartoon land

Nicolette Jones laughs at and learns from a comic strip of small- town life; The Funnies by J Robert Lennon Granta, pounds 9.99, 301pp

RIVERBANK, NEW Jersey, the setting of this novel, is a nowheresville with one claim to fame. It is the home of The Family Funnies, a weekly cartoon of cute episodes from domestic life penned by local resident Carl Mix. Every year, in celebration, the town has a Funny Fest, which the mayor launches by shedding his suit and jumping into the river.

Neither the domestic life on which the cartoons are based, nor the festivities, have been very funny for Carl Mix's real family. Four of his five children hate him; only the youngest missed some of the tyrannies that alienated the others. His wife, driven to it by constant portrayals as stupid in the strips, drank and precipitated senility; now in a home, she intermittently recognises her children. The strip sanitises their experiences, implicitly criticising them for the way they fall short of their cartoon counterparts, and condemning all but one to the burden of whimsical alter egos. The third child, Pierce, is subject to the even greater indignity of never appearing in the cartoons at all. He is rejected by his father, and suffers from schizophrenia.

When Carl dies, only the youngest weeps at his funeral. But Carl's will changes the life of his fourth child, Tim, the protagonist of the novel. His father's legacy causes him to abandon his "career" as an artist who makes installations that are facsimiles of the garbage on the streets, and come round to thinking that bringing the stuff indoors does not stop it from being garbage. He leaves his home and girlfriend. He learns a new craft, finds a new relationship, and goes some way to bridging the gaps in his family.

Slowly, his loathed father's posthumous authority saves his life. And slowly Tim learns some modicum of grudging respect for the man's talent, if not his nature.

All this is written with a spare, Carveresque clarity, in which the prose strikes no poses and the humour, subtlety and depth reside in the accumulation of carefully observed detail. Of, for instance, Tim's frightful elder brother Bobby, who works in waste disposal and whose compulsion to tidy up makes him pretend to the rest of the family that his father asked to be cremated. Of the sinister Carl Mix fan Ken Dorn, who lurks like Humbert Humbert's Quilty on the edge of the action, threatening to be Tim's nemesis. Of Carl's frail widow Dot, remembering her husband in flashes of pain. Of Brad, Carl's friend, an unfulfilled, reclusive genius and the mentor who guides Tim into his new future. Of Tim's Uncle Mal, who dyes his hair but cannot disguise his own loneliness. And of the variously vacant or venal bureaucrats that run Carl `s publishing house and his home town.

Added together, the details make for a poignant, wry novel, with laugh- out-loud moments; a tale of romance, hurt, hope and disillusion, building to an unexpected denouement of revelation. It is infused with Carl's presence, though he is dead before the story begins, and with a wonderful sense of place: the small-minded small towns of New Jersey.

The strength of Carl Mix's cartoons is that they are not exaggerated caricatures, but reductions, distillations of the essence of characters summarised in telling strokes. Lennon's novel is like this, with all the lines right. What spoils Mix's work is the blandness and falsehood of the domesticity it portrays. Lennon's portrait of domesticity is the opposite: stinging, unsentimental and true.

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