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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate