BOOK REVIEW / If only you had faith: The Picturegoers - David Lodge: Penguin, pounds 4.99

THE PICTUREGOERS, originally published in 1960 and now reissued as part of a Penguin first novels promotion, nearly had David Lodge marked down as an angry young realist of the Sid Chaplin / Alan Sillitoe school. 'Love and brute desire . . . cynicism and faith' yelps the jacket of my 1962 Pan paperback, 'a compassionate, realistic and even shocking novel of urban Britain today'. The 1993 blurbwriter has settled for a more sober excursus on the 'realities of city life' and 'a flickering backcloth of celluloid fantasies', but in fact the urban backdrop is something of a decoy. While the novel's wider structures take in a collection of people who turn up each Saturday night at the Brickley Palladium, a seedy cinema in the seedier part of south-east London, its chief quarry is that very rare animal, the question of religious belief, here dramatised in the persons of Mark Underwood, a cynical lapsed Catholic undergraduate, and Clare, the highly devout daughter of the Catholic family with whom he lodges, lately released from her novitiate and contemplating the confusions of the secular life.

Initially their courtship follows a predictable pattern. Though attracted by Mark's witty, world-weary languor, Clare is discomfited by his designs on her body and by his flippant agnosticism ('Mark . . . if only you had faith'). Subsequently the customary 'Catholic' theme of sexual proscription inverts: Clare begins to spend less time at the altar and ponders anew the sins of the flesh, while Mark attends mass, joins in a pilgrimage and wonders whether he might not have a vocation. In the next clinch on the staircase it is he ('No, Clare') who turns aside.

To a modern sensibility untroubled by spiritual conscience, all this might seem simply ridiculous. Such is the strength of Lodge's writing and the intentness of his grappling with motive that the moral dilemmas have a sense of genuine conviction. Only the denouement - Clare's mother finds Mark's porno-fantasy diary about her daughter and promptly bars him from the house - seems slightly forced, an arbitrary line ruled beneath the story rather than an aesthetically satisfying conclusion.

If there is an unseen hand lurking behind these accounts of smoky, peanut-strewn courtships in the three-and-nines and prowling teddy boys it is Richard Hoggart, whose investigation of changing working-class cultural styles, The Uses Of Literacy, was published three years before. A self-conscious cultural tourist ('In the Mallorys he felt he had rediscovered the people') Mark is nevertheless appalled by the people's expression of their cultural preferences: 'the popular art he looked for to accompany this rediscovery was sadly lacking', he decides after a visit to the Palladium.

Fans of Lodge's later novels will find much that is familiar here: the usual armfuls of parody, the literary allusions, the mildly sentimental ending in which Clare subsidises the honeymoon of two other cinema-goers whose wedding she is invited to witness. In a nervous introduction the author offers it up as 'a curiosity, a piece of apprentice work'. This anxiety is misplaced. Despite its tyro gaucheries and the minor characters who fail to come off - notably the stage-Dickensian cleaning ladies - The Picturegoers' appeal derives as much from the quality of the writing as for its absorption in a bygone way of life.

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