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BOOK REVIEW / Dinner parties from hell

POOR SOULS Joseph Connolly Faber £8.99
Most of us have spent an evening which we remember, with a mixture of fondness and horror, as the Dinner Party from Hell. But it can be as nothing compared to the sparklingly awful set piece with which Joseph Connolly opens his first novel. After a desultory ritual of sado-masochism, which does nothing to relieve their marital boredom, Barry and Susan set off to dinner at Gavin and Moira's house. Barry, a middle-aged failure in publishing and an alcoholic, hates Gavin for his money, and Gavin hates Barry for his lack of social grace. Each couple mistakenly thinks the other is happy, and envies them for it.

The dinner party starts awkwardly with forced male bonhomie while the women are banished to the kitchen, and proceeds through aggressive flirting and the private entertaining of murderous fantasies to sadistic spousal humiliation and projectile vomiting. The evening is over, but Joseph Connolly has only just started. These are two marriages ripe for disintegration, and he pulls them apart with impish glee.

Poor souls, indeed: the novel's characters are by turns floundering in debt, morally or spiritually impoverished, and just plain pitiable. But sludgy it ain't: Connolly has a skittish, inventive wit that has you laughing while you wince. He remorselessly points up social pretensions with the eye of a Dostoevsky, towards whose first novel Connolly's title nods. He relentlessly transcribes the London accent of the secretary, Christine - "Why doan chew go?" she drawls, when inviting someone's exit. He is very sharp on the dynamics of emotional power games - "During these moments of venom, Susan approached adoration of herself". Perhaps best of all is Connolly's use throughout of the word "bloody" as a device for rendering his comic dialogue in beautifully rhythmic fashion.

As the novel progresses, the increasingly outlandish man-oeuvres in the story focus on the adulterous, steaming Barry. Barry drinks so much that occasionally you feel the bottle mountain is piled this high, the better for the plot to see where it should go next. Still, like James Kelman in How Late It Was, How Late, Connolly is good at showing, not merely describing, his hero's drunken state of mind. The syntax becomes obsessively coordinated, a breathless stream of "and . . . and . . . and . . ." punctuating ever-lengthening sentences, which pulse with mercurial changes of mood and subject.

Poor Souls takes place in one week in 1985, and near the beginning we get this thought from Barry: "It seemed to him that halfway through the Eighties, no one was meant to feel bad about anything - you simply had to go on wanting more: the Gospel according to Thatcher".

In his authorial role, Connolly, however, avoids such explicit political commentary and instead allows this satire on human behaviour to become timeless, despite its modern trappings. This is borne out by the dark, tender pathos of the novel's ending, where we learn guiltily that all this droll vice has claimed a real, human victim.