Bringing the Ashes to the Bronx

It Was an Accident by Jeremy Cameron Touchstone, pounds 14.99
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We all know how weird New York in blazing summer can be. Both Spike Lee and Sesame Street have shown us that the Cole Porter/Woody Allen vision of Manhattan can be far from the truth. So when reading Nik Cohn's energetic and vibrantly realised new novel, allowance is easily made for Brighton Beach voodooists, and a mystical urban aviary. But cricket?

At one point a conversation in the Bronx is actually interrupted by "a perfect cover drive", John Arlott gets an authorial credit for his description of Maurice Tate's bowling action, and the progress of an Ashes test from Lord's punctuates the narrative. The affectionate incorporation of leather on willow is an inspired subversion in a novel not lacking in originality and imaginative flair.

Need features four characters of varying degrees of oddness who gravitate to Ferdousine, a high-born Persian and his zoo in the Bronx. He employs Kate Root, once a child visionary and now "doom in blue mules", to took after the birds and the snakes. Willie D is a Latino wide boy, first seen by his girlfriend, Anna Crow, watching himself read the Wall Street Journal in a bar mirror. His shoes, bought from his favourite store, "A Shoe Like It'', resemble "road kill". Regular playing of management self- help tapes have led him to dream of investing in a topless car-wash.

Anna is an exotic dancer and freelance Verse-O-Gram girl. She reads Sylvia Plath to the lesbian clientele of the Clit Club when not dressing as Becky Sharp for a man called Brinsley Sheridan. He practices auto-erotic asphyxiation to eighteenth century poetry ("It rhymes", says Anna, "Anons always do"). The quartet is completed by John Joe Maguire, a black man fresh over from Ireland and the back streets of Paddington.

In Cohn's The Heart of the World, his award-winning study of Broadway, he unearthed a fabulous community of Runyonesques living and working along The Great White Way. This has patently helped him with the supporting cast in Need. The incidental colour they provide - cock-fighting, low finance and wise-guy philosophy from the Chez Stadium (sic) bar - allows Cohn the freedom to explore big themes in a maelstrom of flashbacks, jump-cuts and hallucinatory prose.

The spiritually blighted histories of the leading players are agonisingly bared. As Kate dredges her past to recall being traipsed around the showgrounds of the Florida pan-handle by her con-man father, first for her visions of the Virgin Mary and then in a knife-throwing act, so Willie D becomes sexually obsessed wfth her. This, "middle linebacker with tits" is not his usual line at all, but a glimpse of three stray hairs on her leg, together with his knowledge of her facility with knives has left him wrecked.

Cohn's confident handling of the powerful spiritual under-tow of the novel makes the biblical climax all the more affecting. Like a speech by John Prescott, often the individual sentences or passages appear to make no sense in themselves, but the overall message is clear enough. Nik Cohn's funny, overwrought and ultimately triumphant novel reverberates long beyond the finish of the final page.

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