BOOK REVIEW / A plunge into the big nowhere: The dead heart - Douglas Kennedy Little, Brown pounds 15.99

THERE IS a dispiriting sense of closure, of narrowed horizons, about life in Wollanup, a desolate and dusty once-thriving mining town in the Australian outback, which provides the setting for Douglas Kennedy's first novel. Longing for release, the inhabitants seem defeated by the poverty of their ambition; their lives amount to little more than long work-filled days and nights spent getting drunk or indulging in incestuously indiscriminate sexual couplings, or both.

The monotonous landscape offers no redemption: a flat, waterless wilderness pushes in on them from the north, and from the south there is nothing but rolling, desert hills. In this closed world the slightest incident sends waves of rumour and gossip rippling round the community; but when an American, Nick Hawthorne, arrives in town these ripples become waves, soaking everyone with fear and uncertainty.

Haunting the narrative, as he does so many young men's books, is the malign spirit of Martin Amis's early Eighties creation, John Self. Like Self, Hawthorne is a nicotine ruined, alcohol-addled, porn-fancying, infinitely restless urban man who, rotten with decadence, lacks the vitality to be sensuous. Like Self, Hawthorne is repellent and bold. His East Coast life is in great disorder. So he moves to Australia and plunges into the 'Big Nowhere'. He meets Angie and, after some sweaty sex, she, rather improbably, drugs him and takes him back to isolated Wollanup where he wakes, sprawled out in a pool of his own vomit to find that he is married to Angie and is now under the control of her monstrously bullying father, Daddy.

Kennedy squeezes considerable humour from the fallen Hawthorne's plight, gleefully describing his disintegrating relationship with his demonic wife and with her family and other Yahoos. Trapped in Wollanup and consumed by a fear of impending calamity, Hawthorne never ceases mourning the life he left behind; he never stops feeling lonely. Eventually he escapes, and the closing pages, as he is pursued across the desert by a gun-carrying Daddy, are tremendously urgent - driven, thrilling, variegated.

Though much of the writing is ordinary and sluggish with cliches (we encounter 'arctic-cold water'; a motel room that is as hot as a 'Turkish bath'), the occasional verbal flourish is very good indeed. This tension between literary endeavour and easy journalese is characteristic of Kennedy's chaotically flamboyant style, which lurches between feeble predictability and fabulous complexity.

Kennedy, who has written three travel books, succeeds in showing that what to the traveller at first seems new and revitalisingiy unfamiliar can quickly become dull and unremarkable and loathsome. Hawthorne, for instance, is initially enchanted by the savage beauty of the outback, but later he comes to despise its pitiless indifference and its sublime otherness.

'Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising,' wrote Cyril Connolly. And yet, with apologies to Kennedy, one is compelled to say that this book, constantly capable of amusing us, really is . . . well, promising.

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