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BOOKS: Back in the bad old days

POOR SOULS by Joseph Connolly Faber £9.99
IT IS dangerous for a writer to create a protagonist who is too unlikeable, but that is clearly not a warning that Joseph Connolly, whose first novel launches the Faber Originals series, chose to heed. Not only is his central character, Barry, a hopeless, infantile piece of work who says "bitch" a lot, but he is surrounded by an appalling bunch of vapid 30-somethings (the "poor souls"of the title). In farcical manner, events during one particularly harrowing week unfold with alacrity.

The idea is to provide a darkly comic satire about horrible, self-absorbed and meaningless people in the mid-1980s, and Connolly's crew of characters are - Mike Leigh-style - pushed to cartoon-like dimensions. Barry, an alcoholic publisher whose career has gone downhill ever since he backed a flop he had marked for a bestseller - has got himself in debt. It is his descent into sleepless hysteria, and the subsequent sticky mess he becomes embroiled in, around which the rest of the plot crazily canters.

Barry is married to characterless Susan, whom he attempts to strangle on the first page for no apparent reason. As a refuge from her intolerable featurelessness, he then runs off at regular intervals to insipid lover Annie, who is young, lives with her mother and always waiting with open arms and that soothing scotch which only makes him worse.

Meanwhile, there are the (literally) pathological and dull couple - Moira and Gavin - whose small-minded slavery to the keeping-up of yuppy appearances eventually drives the Mrs to mad, obnoxious lengths which form the most disgusting, but also the most genuinely alarming section of this bleak work. Meanwhile, we don't worry about Susan, who goes to bed with several characters - but what we do worry about is that everyone who goes to bed with anybody else does so in such an overdetermined way as to push the comedy too far, so that when Susan who has slept with Hilary who has slept with George says "In a novel, it would have seemed rather too much" one is inclined to agree.

The idea behind Poor Souls is a good one: to produce a sharp, nasty, funny satire about mid-Eighties life in Thatcher's Britain. However, despite the simple, hypnotic prose which makes this an easily digestible read, Connolly's characters just aren't interesting enough: they are clichs, and self-consciously constructed as such. What's more, they talk in clich:

"He felt it as deep in his bones. He'd been a fool. He smiled: clich. A blind fool. Yes, clich. Did it matter? No, didn't matter".

But, despite a great deal of ironic and clever double-bluffing on the author's part, it does matter.