Capering around Shepherd's Bush

A White Merc with Fins by James Hawes Cape, pounds 12.99; A gripping first novel encourages readerly self-congratulation. By Nicholas Lezard

Most of us have probably fantasized about robbing a bank at some time; and if the fantasy is allowed to develop a little, we might wonder about doing it in a non-violent, stylish and foolproof way, which will leave no-one hurt, our consciences clean and our wallets considerably fatter.

This is the idea behind A White Merc With Fins. Its narrator is a 28 year-old man, living in a shed in his sister's back garden, a lower-middle- class graduate who does odd temping jobs, monitors the thinning of his hair, and feels his life drifting out of control. Then one day circumstances allow him to come up with a Plan, namely to rob what be describes as Michael Winner's private bank. Details of the Plan slip out gradually throughout the novel - it's our desire to see it finally unfold that keeps us gripped - and one of the first things we are told is that it involves the flashy car of the title.

Hawes's technique is to combine an old-fashioned caper yarn with an old- fashioned state-of-the-nation novel. The nation as seen by this narrator is urban (Shepherd's Bush, actually), populated by decent vagabonds, ex- junkies, sceptical lefties, out-of-work actors, desperately fending off the day when they apply for teacher training or accountancy:

''We are the retro-people going nowhere backwards, we are the ironic generation, we can stand back and look down and laugh at it all like it is all some crap-clever ad but irony is really balls, irony is what you do to stop it hurting before it starts, irony is a pre-emptive strike on living.''

There are plenty of similar rants and homilies throughout, some of them very funny, some tedious, but all fairly spot-on about what it's like to live in this country today, and charged with the same urgency, in a prose unafraid of long, spiralling sentences, or those sudden breaks into tiny, portentous paragraphs:

Like this.

We should be wary of the neatness of identifications: but it is tempting to speculate on the congruity of his narrator's make-up and Hawes's own. Nothing in the narrator's tone, manner and lifestyle sits oddly against Hawes's inner-sleeve biography - or even his picture (except their different ages, and the fact that Hawes is currently a lecturer at University College, Swansea, which doesn't sound entirely purposeless). If the narrator is named, the details have escaped my two readings of the novel: he may as well be called James Hawes, for one of the most exhilarating things about this novel is its sense of giddy self-enactment. Hence, I suppose, the jibes against irony. But one wonders if Hawes is being quite as honest as be seems to be claiming.

The book is marvellously entertaining - it remained more or less glued to my hand until I finished it - and will achieve great word-of-mouth success from the kind of people who fancy that they are being portrayed in its pages. The narrator's thoughts and animadversions on this and that will very often chime with its readers' thoughts on this and that. And this (and that) is the problem: what we are doing when reading this is not so much engaging ourselves with literature as patting ourselves on the back for our opinions, our street savvy - or maybe even some more intense form of self-gratification: for what is Suzy, the sexpot Scot with great driving skills, natural cool, and a tummy as flat as a book, but a sensitive liberal man's wet dream? We are meant to fall in love with her, which we do, but then there are still men out there in love with Jessica Rabbit.

This is perhaps churlish. It is a caper, after all, a yarn, a plausible fantasy (although the crucial involvement of the IRA in the Plan, for all the narrator's fretting, suggests an ethical void deep inside) and Hawes gets away with it, just. It is hard not to like something that has made such an effort to be likeable. But like the bank job it describes, it is the kind of trick you can only pull off once.

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