Book review / Creaky bedsprings and a saxophonist's dream

Four Last Things by William Palmer Secker, pounds 12.99
Three strikes and you're out. Severe as the Californian criminal code has become, it pales beside the English publishing industry. Such is the current sway of the marketing department, with W. H. Smith figures at the ready, that any novelist who does not promptly hit pay-dirt has little hope of longevity. Under such a system, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood and Graham Swift might now be known only to those readers with a taste for the byways of literature.

It is heartening, then, that William Palmer has not only been able to buck the trend but follows three less-than-megaselling novels with a volume of stories. From an account of murderous intrigue in the Baltic states to a variation upon Leporello's story, Palmer's novels reverberate way beyond the Sutton Coldfield to which he remains loyal.

There is a similar variety to this collection, even within the eponymous, 100-page opening item. Cornelius Marten, the elderly, now-obscure and blocked author of a novel-sequence, is to be visited by a dreary thesis- writer. For this grim prospect Marten blames his wife. In the event, the graduate is accompanied by a comely girlfriend.

The sound of their bedsprings prompts Marten to deliver himself of reminiscences - "of simpler, infinitely more complicated things" - into the proffered tape-recorder. These begin with a stern father and disillusioned first love in Europe during the Thirties before exile in wartime Cambridge and an emerging pattern of disappointment which fuels the fiction as it drains the life.

Precisely located and elusive, sympathetic and repellent, it all reaches a strange, incandescent climax, a technique which is echoed in many of the subsequent stories. Just when one thought that young fogies had vanished, up pops Professor Cox out in Venice to deliver a lecture and "especially proud of the outfit he was wearing. The fawn suit, and cream-coloured waistcoat embroidered with tiny red flowers. The yellow silk cravat...All that was now needed was a silver-topped cane." He, a man whose wife has at last cajoled him into wearing only the trousers of his pyjamas in summer, now finds that an afternoon's stroll brings the ghostly presence of Corvo and Byron - in a short space his future becomes rather less settled than that taste in clothes might have led him to believe.

Sexual insecurity and violent yearnings run through the collection, whether in dreaming of an aunt, an account of an uncle being pulverised at the narrator's eventual wedding or the story of a young office worker's stag night which ends up at the house of a colleague whose supply of pornography is as diverse as his taste in jazz - a subject which resurfaces in "Performance, Performance" which, brief as it is, somehow encapsulates both the doomed hopes of a club owner and the lifelong devotion of a saxophonist to his music. Jazz all too often makes for smoky cliche; Palmer's skill is to realise that only a restrained prose can bring it alive - these six pages are probably the best in the book.

The strength of these robustly elliptical stories is that, in other hands, they might have been stretched into novels, even into adequate novels but certainly not as haunting. The only shame is that the publishers, in slapping such a price upon this paperback original, will enrage the W.H. Smith computer.