BOOK REVIEW / Dead bored and other Common problems: 'They Came From SW19' - Nigel Williams: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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LARGE parts of this novel are so funny that they can produce in the reader all the symptoms of a bad attack of hay fever. The last book I read whose set-pieces were as well done was the memoirs of Sir Kingsley Amis, but this is more believable. Perhaps you have to have known evangelical Christians to get the full effect: unless you know that people can really be that terrible, you will not find them quite as hilarious.

Nigel Williams is not a writer who constructs his gags as if they were mousetraps, like Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut, whose jokes all have beginnings, middles and ends. Williams' jokes don't end. They just carry on in the same easy rhythm until he begins to reach things that are not funny at all, like growing up. On death and supernatural powers, and all the stuff that people take seriously, he is perfect:

'Mrs Quigley is a sensitive. I don't mean she is sensitive. She's about as sensitive as tungsten steel. She is a sensitive, the way some people are bus conductors or interior designers, She is in touch with things that dumbos like you and me did not even know existed until people like Mrs Quigley clued us up on them. . .

'She usually keeps quiet about her prophecies until they have been proved correct, but occasionally she will go public a little earlier than that. Remember the nuclear war in Spain at the end of 1987? That was her. Or the tidal waves off Boulogne in the August of the following year? Seven thousand people were going to die, according to Marjorie Quigley. A lot of us thought that house prices would be seriously affected.'

Williams continues in that vein, without apparent effort, all the way through to the end.

The plot kicks off with the death of the narrator's father, and his mother's stumblingly awful efforts to describe this. It seems that she can't say the right thing because she is so old: listening to her, the narrator, Simon, thinks: 'when I get to 42, I hope they shoot me.'

More grown-up reasons for her confusion duly appear. But it is the real triumph of the novel that it takes so long to disentangle the conventionally grotesque from the really bizarre. Simon's family belongs to an obscure sect that has all the horrors and most of the beliefs of self-conscious believers like the seventh-day adventists (Simon must eat meat with a spoon) or the Jehovah's Witnesses. In addition, they believe in all the joys of life after death. When one of their number dies, the inner circle of the church appears in loud flared trousers to prove that the event has not depressed them. They do this even when they liked the deceased.

Compared to his religion, Simon's science makes a lot of sense. On clear nights he sits out on the Common with a couple of older and obviously madder men, and waits for aliens. He does so with a nice agnosticism. If it were true, then it would be very important, and much more interesting than most things that go on in the South London suburbs.

The problems start once these expectations are fulfilled. He looks out of the window, shortly after his father's death, and sees him still hanging around, looking lost, as a ghost might, in the street outside. When he has overcome his terror enough to look again, the apparition is gone. The next morning, his Ufologist friend is lost too, apparently swept away from the common. Then he finds he is expected to make a public profession of faith in the church. All this is odd enough. But is it odder than having to live as a grown-up in the drearier reaches of south London? That is the fate which lies in wait for Simon, if he gets through the obstacle courses of adolescence.

Beneath all the grotesqueries of the plot, everything is perfectly credible, and indeed ordinary. That is what makes this such truly funny writing, for Williams is funny about things from which there is no escape. In most British comic writing about the provinces - and you can hardly get more provincial than a south London suburb - there is always the hope of transportation, to London, Euphoria State, or even Australia. But there is no exit from SW19.

Death is certainly no relief. The banalities of spiritualism can hardly ever have been better done: the dead live, if anything, less dramatic lives than the spiritualists on this side. Asked how things are now, one replies: 'very much the same.'

The aliens, too, are about interesting as a 14-year-old's sex life. When you get down to it, they don't exist, and what they are expected to do when they do arrive is both contrived and banal.

When, in the end, all is made clear, and we learn which disappearances were carried out by humans, and which deaths followed the pursuit of UFO, the laughter doesn't seem to stop. It just modulates into a nastier and more memorable key. And that's just how it should be.