Book review / Getting nowhere with Ulrika, Kiki and Marie-Francoise

An Innocent Abroad by Barry Pilton, Corgi Books, pounds 6.99

It's one thing to lose your way in the world - to miss the big wave, turn up an hour too late for the big cultural happening - but quite another to turn such omissions into entertaining copy. So many columnists already employ self-deprecation as their stock-in-trade that one's spirits rather droop at the prospect of another exercise in disingeneousness from someone who, according to the blurb, found themselves in Paris in the late Sixties but was, ha ha, singularly unable to live the life of a bohemian or a revolutionary or, tee hee, emulate the artistic and sexual antics of such literary mentors as Henry Miller and Hemingway.

But re-assurance is close at hand. After no more than a page or two of An Innocent Abroad, it's clear that Barry Pilton has more than enough comic skill at his command to refresh the entire genre.

He may not be able to live up to his Bohemian aspirations, but there's no doubt about the honest effort he puts into the enterprise, no question about his desire to live a life which would convince his socially mobile fellow adolescents back home that he spends his days "sipping hot chocolate on Jean-Paul terms with Mr Sartre...and all night long was to be found crotch-deep in can-can girls".

There's genuine hardship here: hours of solitude in an alien city which only slowly reveals its aesthetic and intellectual attractions, days of searching out ways to make enough money to buy food to take back to a tiny hotel room, and above all, from the point of view of narrative momentum, month after month of trying unsuccessfully to make out with girls. For our hero was a late-qualifier at sex, a sad flimsy bearded 21-year-old who realised only too well that when it came to erotic encounters "where he suffered most from stiffness was the upper lip". In a city which Henry Miller populated with "happy-go-lucky souls who fuck on sight", poor Barry fails in rapid succession with flaxen-haired Ulrika, yogic Marie-Francoise, Amazonian Helba or even Dutch au pair Kiki.

Neither did his writing provide much compensation: the romantic and sensitive travel stories upon which he intermittently embarked hardly managed to engage even his own attention. Compared to his new friend Dave, who suffered torments from his attempt to set down on paper the outline of a whole new moral philosophy, he was a dilettante. "I envied him the fact that he was a driven writer; at best I would never be more than a slightly pushed writer. He had to write, whereas I merely thought writing seemed quite a neat idea".

We can be pretty certain, the way these things go, that Barry will eventually get his girl, but will he also come to realise in common with his delighted readers that his real gift is for comic prose? Romance and recognition are simultaneous. As he tells his new friend, Theresa, in extravagant detail, of one of his more bizarre Parisian encounters, he caused "a deep, almost nasal laughter to gurgle up helplessly from her shaking bosom". Its a revelation. For too long he has been ignoring the obvious. "Perhaps I had simply to commit the jokey bits of me to paper".

We can only be grateful that he followed through on his discovery. For within this story of growing self-awareness are any number of those necessary truths about life and love which only well-wrought comedy can precisely capture.

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