Book review / Turning the tables

Morning All Day by Chris Paling, Cape, pounds 14.99
Is there any human experience more gruesome than the dinner party? Those of us who have learnt to decline all invitations enjoy freedom from those gatherings which, far from a display of Peacockian verve, soon become a point-scoring riff on property prices, promotion prospects and the children's prowess. It is, then, a bold stroke by Chris Paling not only to open his third novel with such a dinner but to make it a crucial moment in one man's mid-life crisis - something which brings with it a variation on another much-travelled terrain, adultery in Hampstead.

It would, of course, have been much easier to jettison the likes of Paling's central character, Gordon Meadows, a dismal fortyish teacher, and the coke-snorting lawyer Piran, and transfer the action to some snowy, murder- prone Scandinavian city, or even to a salt mine or the magic-realist purlieux of Latin America. Paling, however, has stuck with the tougher task of presenting contemporary England - and he has come up with something which approaches the incandescent view of wartime terror which was his debut, After The Raid.

Events follow pell-mell after that dinner, at which Gordon's drunkenness was a convenient mask for his sidling upstairs to renew his sexual delight in his host's wife. She is not content with such hasty fumblings and seeks a lunchtime assignation in a cheap hotel, which is as witheringly evoked as Gordon's school and his home life. Such events as Gordon's bolting and the arrest of Piran's dealer (who operates under the guise of a bicycling sandwich-seller) make one reach for the word shenanigans - especially as Gordon makes his young daughter believe that he is travelling in Egypt with an old teacher rather then holing up in a lodging house where the landlady's "philosophy on food was that the quantities should diminish throughout the day".

Time and again, Paling touches off a phrase which emphasises the novel's jagged world-view, a rawness that springs from the shifting points of view of his episodic structure. "The carcass of the meal she had prepared silted beneath her in fashionable and congealing fats on the uncollected dishes" - this evokes more than a table top. Later on, there is the observation that "on their radios the ritualised pedantry of the Today programme was reassuring them that their respective worlds had woken safely. Disaster had tidily confined itself to the usual continents."

All this, together with the requisite loveless copulations, forms something distinct from its parochial components. It would be unfair to reveal more of the twists that events take. Suffice to say that while Paling's previous book, Deserters, appeared to be an early work rushed out in the wake of After The Raid, this third novel really is a Paling.