BOOK REVIEW / Doggies in sharp suits

WHITE MERC WITH FINS by James Hawes, Cape pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
THE movie Reservoir Dogs has a lot to answer for. Fat guns jabbing out of magazines, old suits masquerading as fashion, sharp chat as literature, and now this: 300 slangy pages of heist-novel, film and translation rights already auctioned, opening with the same short-fuse dialogue, the same pistol-talk, the same swaggering swear-words as Quentin Tarantino's bloody film. Page two even gives us "a Reservoir Dog fetishist" called Brady as a central character.

Hawes' novel is about half a dozen aimless Londoners robbing a secret bank to give their lives direction. For a time, his writing does its best to disguise this, scrambling up the premise in sentences too tough to have verbs. The remaining words strain: Brady is described, in the midst of a row about how much force the robbers should use in their raid, as looking "like a lobster on speed". It is not a surprise to discover that the self-conscious author is a university lecturer.

When Hawes calms down, things do not immediately improve. His middle- class narrator is approaching 30 without a career. He lives in a lean- to behind his sister's prosperous West London terrace. She "left College in the early Eighties"; he indulges in typical diatribes about the betrayal of his generation. He never quite refers to Generation X, but you constantly expect him to. He has the odd perceptively bitter line - irony is "a pre- emptive strike on living" - but there is a growing sense that all this pop-sociology sounded better in publishers' meetings a year or two ago than it reads now. We already know that young people stay in bed late.

Yet once the book stops using its cultural insights and crime-writing conventions as textural affectations and starts using them as ways to tell a story, the narrator grows from slacker stereotype into sympathetic human being: sitting in his lean-to, desperately planning the robbery, watching a middle-aged man in the house opposite, also balding and alone, building Airfix aeroplanes no one else will ever see. And his Plan, as it is revealed bit by bit, is clever. Rather than conforming to the usual patterns of heist stories - the painstaking preparation, the professionalism, the inevitable climactic violence - Hawes alters them to suit his slow- to-rise robbers. Thus the narrator learns of the existence of the bank, a covert Covent Garden vault for the likes of Michael Winner, while he is temping as a dead-end office boy nearby. The entire Plan is thrown together over a long weekend, just like a cannabis-aided fantasy. For ingredients, it uses the characters' socially redundant tastes: the car- obsessed narrator chooses an old white Mercedes for the most conspicuous, and thus inconspicuous getaway; Brady and his fellow suited-up "Doggies" are to create a diversion by acting out a Tarantino script outside the bank.

As they wait nervously for the appointed hour - no Kray twins sang-froid here - Hawes broadens out his themes. Politically, he suggests today's destabilised middle class may be readier to break the law: "The door to the other side is closer than you think." Then he pushes out further, making the narrator and his girlfriend (the getaway driver) ponder the point of their lives as they sweat through the night before. Hawes' previous book was philosophy; here he suddenly gives his hero a beautifully life- affirming memory of watching a dragonfly, frozen by night in the Pyrenees, slowly thaw and then fly away.

Then he gets down to the action. This is fantastically well done: the robbers slip smoothly into the bank; they charm Winner's millions into their pockets; the diversions take place outside on schedule; the Plan clicks along; then, in an instant, collapses. For a frozen, delicious paragraph, the robbers hesitate, admit defeat - as slackers are wont to do - and think about prison.

What follows flips between getting-away-with-it giddiness - "I strolled along Charing X Road with my million quid bag of washing, ambled into Old Tott.Ct.Rd..." - and sober defeat. At one point, the narrator even nips into the British Museum and looks at some ancient jewels, to remind himself "that nothing really mattered that much". At such moments Hawes' cheek and facility revitalises his genre. You can even forgive the suits.