Civil servant and footballer Carol Birch on a novel with glimpses of quaint loonies

In the city's east quarter a hopeless underclass endures rats, filth, a nd the regular raids of vicious gangs

The Fall from Grace of Harry Angel Paul Wilson Jonathan Cape £9.99

There's a kind of schizophrenia about this uneasy, uneven novel. We are in an England of mills and moors, yet our narrator, raised in a once great cotton city now in grim decline, speaks slick Americanese: "Heck," he says, kicking a football around beneath the suspicious eyes of the neighbourhood kids, "I could have been good. I could have boarded that subway tram with a one-way ticket to somewhere. If only the rest of my dumb life was lived from the mountaintop like this."

Harry Angel wanted to be a footballer, but ended up a civil servant. He visits his father in a sanatorium peopled with quaint loonies, grows rare pukka berries in his apartment, muses cynically on life in the elevators and corridors of a City Hall seething with corruption. Ambitious council leader Corwen Lintock receives guidance from Jesus Christ, who meets with him weekly in the benighted park. A body is exhumed. Someone is slashing animals in the zoo. In the city's east quarter a hopeless underclass endures rats, filth, and the regular raids of vicious gangs looking for "kurs" - scapegoats for all the city's ills. Something is rotten in this anomalous state.

The analogy with contemporary life is clear. But Harry Angel was once Harni Zelenewycz, son of Poles who fled "the production of human bonemeal" in Europe during the war. Through his memories and his mother's diaries, revealed piecemeal throughout the far superior second half of the book, the analogy is taken further: the denizens of the east quarter are obliged to bear a yellow stamp on all documents; the houses of suspected kurs are daubed with lime mulch; a cur- few is announced.

This is a science fiction vision, a peculiar hybrid of England and America where culture is dead, alienation is near total and betrayal is the order of the day. Harry wonders of a colleague "whether his heart beat blood". He observes a brave good man ledaway by the security men: "There were no thoughts in my head. Just a big blocking zero.'' What might not occur when man is so desensitised? And indeed it becomes clear as the city's tercentenary celebrations approach that some abomination looms. The city must be cleansed. A wall is erected between the east quarter and the rest. The weeding out of infiltrating kurs becomes a TV game show.

The ending is pure Cuckoo's Nest and herein lies the main flaw in this novel: there are so many nods towards other writers. Paul Wilson's influences show through like multiple exposures on a film. But he is fluent and skilful and the book is full of snappy soundbites and bizarre and vivid imagery. From a seeming mishmash of repetitive phrases and unappealing characters he brings harmony, progressively knitting up the disparate threads. Because of this and because of the movement from cold cleverness to emotion, it takes some time to engage the reader.

Late in the action we find that Harry Angel's heart does indeed beat blood. His fall from grace is a rebellion into the beginnings of human warmth.

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