Book review / Sex on the graveyard shift

Kraven Images by Alan Isler Cape, pounds 14.99
Alan Isler's first novel. The Prince of West End Avenue, was so convincing and impressive that his second was always going to have a tough job living up to it. Set in a Jewish old people's home in Manhattan, it narrated the goings-on surrounding a production of Hamlet with a brilliant and uncanny mixture of comedy and sorrow.

At the age of 62, the author, who was born in England but went to New York in 1952 to become a literature professor, found himself being compared to Bellow, Heller, Malamud and Singer - more than enough to turn anyone's head, especially since they were not foolish comparisons. Kraven Images does not exactly feel burdened by any of this. It is written with the same untroubled zeal that marked the earlier book. But it does not have quite the same cleanliness of conception.

The Prince of West End Avenue pushed beautifully at the edges of its world-within-a-world: the old people's home, and the production of Hamlet, gave a strong frame to the resonant farce that was being played out within its confines. Kraven Images begins on campus, with a university professor whose love affair is getting too much for him, but soon spills out into the wider world, where its surreal flourishes seem merely strange, rather than intense.

Nicholas Kraven is a bogus literature professor, a connoisseur of the view up his students' skirts and a comically vulgar part-time sonneteer. His entire life has been a theatrical performance, ever since he stepped into the shoes of his dead brother and presented himself to an American University as their new literature man. He got away with it then, but the past is catching up with him. He finds himself hounded by sexual harrassment charges - a slightly wearying plot concession to a fashionable American concern - and sets off for Europe in search (rather implausibly) of his mistress's husband.

As if by magic, he gets chummy with an extraordinary range of characters: an old woman with a magnificent aphrodisiac potion, a clutch of strippers eager to put on a bawdy Shakespearean cabaret, an indignant old Jewish Marxist who turns out to be the father of one of the strippers. Eventually his path takes him back to the house in Harrogate where he was born, back to the family disaster which gave birth to his unusual demons. The climax at the end - a dramatic childhood incident - is fierce and touching, but it is a touch pat to suppose that it works as an explanation for the character Kraven has become.

Isler moves his characters through their scenes with a lovely deep wit: everything is fresh and avid, and we can't perhaps ask for more than that. The relationship between Kraven and his lover, Stella, is especially stinging and rich - at once exhilarating and confusing, and a grand tribute to the insistent tug of desire. One hates to add another name to the roll- call of famous writers with whom Isler has been compared, but he does seem to be inspired by Philip Roth here: the sense of love as a heady, fleeting refuge from the grave. The novel begins in a cemetery, among the worms, and the vivid actions in the book - eating and sex - are just glorious flights from the inescapable concern with age. Kraven ends the book as he began it, sobbing. His mum could have told him it would all end in tears.

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