BOOK REVIEW / Old rebel gets it in the Neck: Tribes - Alexander Stuart: Chatto & Windus pounds 13.99

IN HIS first novel, The War Zone, Alexander Stuart delved fiercely and crudely into the anarchic world of adolescence. He picked at its lawless sexuality and confused routes to self-knowledge, through the eyes of a teenage hero caught up in a circle of violence and incest. In Tribes, the hero has become an adult, but it would be stretching a point to say he has grown up. No longer teetering on the edges of desire and despair, he produces films, goes to West End plays, talks on mobile telephones and drinks in Soho clubs.

It's always a bit of a come-down when you meet ex-rebels in banks and bars. Stuart tries to wriggle out of the disappointment by pretending that this new, slickly banal world is still rooted in cut-throat violence. So the new alter ego, Nick, makes films about riots and thugs and goes to football matches. And he gets funny feelings - such as wanting to rape his girlfriend and finding it exciting when she gets beaten up - that Stuart glamorises into wild mythic urges, the beast within us all. Such rhetoric tends to fall flat, coming out as an unconvincing apology for the delusions of excess testosterone. Stuart only weakens his message further by trying to increase its social portent.

Thus, on page seven, we enter South London - 'You are south of the river,' Stuart intones, 'there is no civilisation here . . . You are outside the ring of fire' - and meet Nick's double. This is the hooligan he could have been if he hadn't had the benefits of a public school education, a right-on girlfriend, and a therapist for a mother. The doppelganger, in case we missed the parallel, is called the Neck, and here is the first meeting of the wild men, expressed with sledgehammer subtlety: 'His eyes meet the Neck's one last time and the Neck sees again what he saw before, something wild, something brotherly which gives him a curious sense of satisfaction . . . He sees the hunger and fear and fun and the rest of it, and just for a moment, just for the briefest lapse in his rock-hard cosmology, he understands that they're closer than he could ever admit, him and this pretty boy, this Roman.'

For those who believed that there was no lower form of human life than a Soho film producer, this scenario might be enlightening. But Stuart rams the message home without pause throughout the book, as the Neck is offered a job by Nick, gets sacked, then rapes his girlfriend. And the consequence is - damn, you guessed it - the fight, also referred to as an 'appointment with truth', in which Nick's life hangs in the balance for a split second, until he gathers up his deep inner potential for violence and throws the Neck onto some railway tracks.

The problem about violence, like sex, is that it's more difficult to do on stage, screen or the page than people ever realise. And pages of 'A man threw himself across the seat and on to a youth in front, stabbing viciously at him with a screwdriver', just like pages of 'his penis nudged the wetness of her vagina', are hypnotically tedious. Nowhere do we encounter the free-wheeling articulacy of The War Zone, but stumble instead from turgid descriptions of action to clouds of emotion that grow less and less specific as the novel goes on - from 'something personal in this that he can't understand' to 'a fear he won't admit to and can't explain' and 'a particular memory that he could not for the moment place'.

Bad books are not the worst books. The worst are the self-important ones. Stuart has a messianic line in rhetoric - the 'cosmic vacuum' of London, for instance, or the 'forces of evil' contained in a few pints, or that 'timeless sweep of being in which they at once straddled the world and were within it'. His desire to add weight to scenarios that he cannot be bothered to make resonant on their own account means that he overwhelms his little novel with symbol and portent. Although the Neck's thuggery never comes alive by itself, it is often compared to fascism, to the Crusaders, even to the Saxons resisting the Romans, so that when he yells, he is 'screaming into the grey London sky the cry that haunts the Roman soldiers - the real Roman soldiers centuries away on the Thames's darkness.'

That self-importance extends to Nick's milieu as well. Stuart would like us to understand that the London film crowd are not just poseurs, but artists at heart. So Nick sits in bars saying, 'James Joyce meets West Side Story . . . That's how I think Tribes should be, only harder'. The man whom he most admires, a robotic film director called Massinger, last made a film of Finnegans Wake and likes to quote T S Eliot and then say: 'Four Quartets is an astonishingly complete piece, the culmination of a life's work. I dream of making a film of such power before I die.' I would like to believe this is all black and vicious irony, but I'm afraid it's not. It bears the unmistakeable stamp of earnest stupidity.