BOOK REVIEW / Making babies in the polka dot: 'Sugar Cane' - Paul Bailey: Bloomsbury, 14.99 pounds

'I WORK with human genitals.' This is the first sentence of Sugar Cane, and its theme: what people do with their reproductive organs, and why. Virtually the only thing they don't do, in the shadowy world of male prostitution and the VD clinic, is reproduce. Although one birth has occurred by the end of the story, the baby's father was only able to achieve paternal status by putting on a dress so that his woman could, excitingly, unzip him. The woman, incidentally, learns to relish the ritual: 'I fancy you in the polka dot tonight,' she says.

The woman is the narrator, Esther Potocki, a venereologist working in a London hospital. Her job allows Paul Bailey to introduce various oddities who present themselves as her patients: Marcus, who will not believe that he is healthy and keeps returning to the clinic to be cured of the gonorrhoea he could not possibly have caught; Mr Lollipop, who is tattooed with an accurate and detailed map of the island of Curacao; Horace, an ancient and filthy syphilitic tramp. These people walk into and straight out of the book, forming a background frieze of pathetic caricatures.

In the foreground is Stephen, whose mother, in a rare moment of tenderness, once called him Sugar Cane. The book is really his story. A half-caste from Halifax, he has run away from a brutal, racist stepfather to be picked up in London by a bogus Bishop and introduced to the 'circuit' as a rent boy. His best friend, Tonio, is dying of Aids in Dr Potocki's hospital as the novel opens. After Tonio's death, Stephen attaches himself to the doctor, appearing out of the blue as she leaves work and giving her presents. The first is a volume of Chapman's Homer, but if that provokes hopes of travelling in realms of gold, they are soon dashed. The details of his life that Stephen lets slip, in tantalising asides, suggest a tarnished and tawdry underworld.

Meanwhile the doctor's own life story is gradually revealed. Bailey makes his job of impersonating a female narrator easier by presenting her as utterly unfeminine. The only child of a Polish emigre with aristocratic pretensions, Esther proves to be too large to become the ballerina of her mother's dreams.

With her father's support she takes to medicine and marries a Jew, which is altogether too much for her mother. The father proves to have had a penchant for photographing the pudenda of her mother's friends, the husband dies rapidly of drink, the mother goes mad and Esther discovers Stephen.

The second half of the book is Stephen's story as revealed on a tape he presents to Esther before disappearing. As she listens, Esther describes it as his descent into Hell, but the story is told in a curiously detached, antiseptic way. Even the lurid practices, which he describes in some detail, somehow fail to shock. Perhaps that is the effect of enduring all the earlier case histories, or perhaps it is because nothing really very terrible actually happens to Stephen (in fact, nothing more terrible than a lot of . . . well, licking, actually).

The wicked bogus Bishop is far more comic than sinister. In his 'palace' in a Wandsworth warehouse, this combination of Fagin and the rascally Rector of Stiffkey lives like a lord on the immoral earnings of his acolytes. He is partial to vodka and fancy-dress and thoroughly enjoys hearing the boys' 'confessions'. For some reason, the local community admires him for his unspecified good works, the fishmonger even giving him smoked salmon for his equally bogus cat. After the only really horrible episode, when he has employed a hideous thug to beat him up, he appears on television the next evening as a panellist on 'Questions of Faith', and expresses abhorrence of sexual deviance, thundering 'I cannot forgive what is wicked'. It is hard to take seriously, and as irony it is pretty clumsy.

At the beginning of this book, under the copyright symbol is an odd little statement: 'The moral right of the author has been asserted.' Some variant of it occurs in most new books, presumably for legal reasons. In this case though, it sets you thinking. Paul Bailey is a clever craftsman, adept at playing with changes of time and voice, but the 'moral right' he seems to assert is a bleak one, offering only the tenuous hope that is voiced in the last sentence: 'I sense . . . a fragile need for enchantment sustained against a mountain of terrible odds.'

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015