Book review / The sherry party of the mind

KRAVEN IMAGES by Alan Isler, Cape pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
JADED readers might feel reluctant to yield precious bookshelf space to yet another English academic comic novel, let alone novelist. But here is Alan Isler, stepping briskly into that continuous Eng Lit faculty sherry party of the imagination as if unaware of the crush. And so at home is he - deferential, dry, winking knowingly at chaos and pathos, that, on the summarised guest-list of Bradbury, Lodge, Jacobson, Sharpe et al, he must surely be al.

If lacking the focus and powerful central conceit of last year's debut novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, Isler's new book is still an accomplished comic performance. And jaded would he be indeed who could not find enough of freshness and humanity to engross him in the weavings and heavings of Nicholas Kraven, the principal protagonist of Kraven Images.

Like his creator, Kraven is a British-born lecturer teaching Shakespeare in New York. Raised, again like his creator, in wartime Harrogate, he inhabits - somewhat fraudulently and uncomfortably - the shapeless world of 1970s campus life. The re-creation of 1970s student argot - the "oh wows" and the "like, y'knows" - is a little too recognisably artificial at times and impedes the pace of Isler's frenetic story. Otherwise, it all flows agreeably along, merging characters, situations and locations into a stream of coincidence.

Kraven is sensitive, educated and libidinous in about equal measure. This enables him to bring a simultaneous intensity and irony to his relationships, a detached commitment which reflects that of the writer. Thus, when Isler characterises a fearsome female scholar by means of a joke, it is one that he shares with Kraven:

"Over her left nipple this evening she wore a brooch advising TRY GOD!, whether suggesting a new course of holy living or urging the indictment of the Almighty, Kraven was unsure."

Nicholas Marcus Kraven has arrived in America after a youth spent jousting with his older and overbearing cousin, Marcus Nicholas Kraven. The family history, European and Jewish, is sketched in adroitly, alerting us to the quirks of the increasingly lonely and love-seeking "Nicko" as he steps out of the shadow of "Marko". In the early part of the book, our Nicko is lusting after young girl students while carrying on an energetic affair with his married neighbour, Stella, to whom he composes private, experimental verse. When Stella takes on the appearance and immobility of a corpse in his bed, he is forced to examine his lot and face up to the consequences of his actions.

In those consequences lies the comedy. Young people of barbarian ignorance and aggression, and old people of eccentric connivance and superiority conspire to prevent Nicholas, keeper of the flickering Kraven flame, from achieving any sort of confidence or repose. And while the plot has its outrageous aspects - fuelled by the introduction of such sirens as an elderly German virago in possession of a volcanic aphrodisiac, and the magnificently enticing stripper, Candy Peaches, who is working on a thesis on eroticism in the fiction of 19th-century women writers - it never spins out of Isler's control.

This is asserted almost wilfully at the end, when the shattered pieces of the Kraven family memories laid out in a sharply drawn opening section are painfully re-assembled. Though the effect of this is a little top- heavy, dislocating the earlier bawdy humour, it reinforces the sense of an involved intelligence that one always feels to be at the heart of this very entertaining novel.

! Gerald Jacobs, the literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle, is the author of `Sacred Games'