A Gulf between the sexes

MY FAVOURITE WAR by Christopher John Farley, Granta pounds 8.99
Journalism "isn't writing, it's typing" quips the narrator Thurgood Brinkman, and Christopher John Farley's publishers are so proud of this witticism that they've slapped it on the cover. It is difficult to understand why, since Truman Capote said it first (about Jack Kerouac). In his fiction debut, American journalist Farley throws in thick-and-fast puns, jibes, lectures, jeremiads and bouts of wordplay ("everything dies, dissolves and resolves itself into adieu"). This compensates a little for the sprawling plot: we are two-thirds into the book before the Gulf War makes an appearance.

Thurgood, a brainy black journalist writing witless trend stories for a mass-market national newspaper, is a stalled character who raps on and on about whatever's on his mind - usually racism. We might suspect that, since Farley evidently isn't writing a novel for the pure love of storytelling, he too has a lot to get off his chest. Many of the observations and prejudices - however hilarious - don't serve the story. When Thurgood is thrown out of his Washington DC apartment and quickly has to find somewhere to live, one of his friends offers him his room, since he's off to South America "on one of those fellowships that idle, young, rich white people always get". It is not immediately clear whether we are to infer from this that Thurgood is an ingrate, or whether this is merely one of Farley's own sour observations.

With characterisation, Farley spurns the classic advice "show, don't tell". Thurgood introduces us to his friends and colleagues with snappy descriptions: "Gabby was very liberal, very pc, very animal rights, very women's issues, very lesbian ... I've always liked lesbians." One friend obligingly provides his own handy label: "You're always calling me this big misogynistic womaniser ... " Such points being established, Farley absolves his characters from the necessity of growing, changing or surprising us.

Thurgood is not presented entirely without irony. He thinks his big problem is his low-status job; actually, Farley is at pains to show, it is his refusal to commit emotionally, despite being surrounded by voluptuous women. He dates Ntozake Dove from the office, but is put off by her "Old Testament number of kids". He blind-dates go- getting Arizona, but she turns out to be a psychotic anti-Semite and a bit too light-skinned for comfort. Thurgood's sister, Bethune, is going out with a dire white rapper, Professor Ice (their conversations are deeply funny); Thurgood toys with Ice's 18-year-old black adopted sister Eboni, but is infatuated with Sojourner Truth Zapader, a right-on Washington Post columnist he has never met. Farley throws in some nonsense about having lesbian sex with Zapader in cyberspace, but as the characters meet in reality just a few pages later, this is a pointless flourish. The gorgeous Zapader wants him to come to Kuwait as her researcher. Smitten or no, Thurgood's first reaction is one of furious resentment. Up to this point it has looked as though his favourite war is the sex war.

However, Thurgood's Desert Storm is more of a light shower, and it is not surprising that Farley flunks this subject after allowing his alter ego to muse that the West has been unfair to Saddam as a "person of color". Thurgood has to return and face his responsibilities, and for an author who has sprinkled his book with disparaging references to ugly white women, it is gratifying to note the degree of respect and awe accorded to black women. But then, having supported Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan all these years, maybe they're the ones who buy the novels in the black community.