BOOK REVIEW / Pick 'n' mix TV in Salt Lake City: 'Lucker and Tiffany Peel Out' - Eroica Mildmay: Serpent's Tail, 7.99 pounds

EROICA MILDMAY'S first book is a road novel about a young couple's visit to America, told with the garrulous verve of a hyperactive media brat on speed. Lucker is a photographer with a commission to document a grungy-sounding British band's tour of the United States. Along for the ride is the narrator, Tiffany, his girlfriend of just 10 weeks.

The American landscape features as little more than a backdrop to Tiffany's altered emotional states as the pair traverse the country. Chance encounters and accidental adventures form a kind of expressionist counterpoint to her frequently diffident relationship with Lucker. In a swimming pool she meets Dwanye, an overweight truck driver, who tells her about being held at gunpoint by a group of children who simply wanted some chocolate. Halfway between Salt Lake City and Denver, she chases snakes with a nine-year-old boy.

Most of this bowls along cheerfully enough. Tiffany is a wry narrator, and when her metaphors hit the mark, she's funny too. The waitresses in a garishly posh hotel, Tiffany remarks, look like 'missionaries in drag. Puffy ankles with tired brains from too much good work'. One 'drives jerkily forward like a radio car, on the go until the batteries drop out'.

Mildmay neatly conveys the awkward intimacy that travelling brings to two people who barely know one another and whose intermittent failure to connect gives the novel its shape. Theirs is a very hip relationship in which expressions of emotion are kept to a minimum and hurt disguised by wit. Tiffany sways between lust and loathing for Lucker, deciding, after she foils his attempt to carry a bag of cocaine for the band, that he has a 'runny careless mind', then that 'I don't need him, I only want him', only to change her mind when they land up at a seaside idyll in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet beneath its slick surface, there's a gap where the novel's substance should be. Mildmay eschews dreary internalising, but puts nothing in its place. Lucker appears as little more than a sketchy presence, a beautiful slob whose most distinctive attributes are his predilection for booze and a bizarre sexual fantasy that involves Tiffany wearing a Groucho Marx disguise.

Nor are most of the insights on America original enough to make up for this. There's the obligatory supermarket scene in which we are invited to sneer at just how gross and greedy Americans are, and a description of channel-hopping, pick 'n' mix TV. Mildmay strives for a tone that is so light and bright and detached, that when she tries to be serious, such as when Tiffany witnesses a rape, we are unable to feel anything. Still, although reading it is a bit like eating souffle when you're starving, Lucker and Tiffany Peel Out is rarely less than entertaining, and that's some achievement.

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