Farewell, New Croydon

The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy, Abacus, pounds 16.99 hardback, poun ds 9.99 paperback
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Ben Bradford, the narrator of Douglas Kennedy's second novel, always wanted to be a globetrotting photo-journalist but has instead become a Wall Street lawyer with the usual wife and two kids and a home in the posh Connecticut commuter town of New Croydon. Kennedy, New York-born but now a Londoner, collected a million-dollar-plus advance for the US rights to The Big Picture. One thing the Americans will not get for their money is the Croydon joke. They'll read it, but they won't get it, as it goes way over their heads and appeals purely to the British readership. Nice touch.

Ben still plays with his impressive collection of cameras and darkroom equipment, but is finding that domestic security is "its own form of hell". Actually, all we are shown on that front is the horrors of nappy- changing and the dull train ride to Grand Central. Ben's real problems are more to do with the fact that his bitchy wife Beth is having it off with a neighbour.

Beth is a failed novelist who blames Ben for making her fail by tying her down. Since her novels were all of the precious autobiographical kind ("That autumn, under a salmon sky, my mother began to sew a quilt in our back yard"), she could well be kidding herself. Then again, Kennedy has done all right despite some pretty poor writing, as when Ben takes the helm of a fast yacht and says, "The sheer velocity of speed held me in its thrall," so the reader may prefer to give Beth the benefit of the doubt.

The obvious question, with mid-life crisis imminent, is whether Ben's chances of throwing off suburban shackles and succeeding in photography are any better. It turns out they are, surprisingly so. Beth merely dreams of escape through adultery but Ben takes a more radical approach.

He confronts Beth's lover, kills him, uses the body to fake his own death by fire, takes over the dead man's identity and trust-fund inheritance and runs off to start a new life in Montana. There, the beautiful picture editor of the local paper falls for him, his portraits of Montana people are acclaimed as "terrific" and "fantastic", and his reportage of a forest fire brings him national fame.

Unfortunately it also brings an inquisitive Beth and her new sugar-daddy husband to his opening of the "Montana Faces" exhibition, so Ben has to do another bunk and "die"all over again. This is easy, because the one man who has discovered his secret suffers a fatal accident in a lonely place within minutes of issuing a blackmail demand, so there's another body handy. Phew. The only difficulty is that if Ben wants to hang on to the beautiful picture editor he will have to tell all, which could place as severe a strain on her love as Kennedy places on our credulity.

A novelist like Geoff Nicholson could probably make a good black farce out of this story, but Kennedy seems to be playing it straight. TheCroydon joke finds no successors to speak of, and the emphasis on Ben's grief at leaving his sons behind, the conventional romance and the travelogue- style meditations on the vast Montana landscape resist an ironic approach. The use of convenient unlikelihoods - the murder victim's lack of relatives, the fact that Ben happens to be passing when the forest fire breaks out, and the blackmailer's ludicrously prompt demise - is apparently meant to be your average kind of sleight-of-hand, not a deliberate alienation technique.

Neither does Kennedy acknowledge the weird shifts of tone that take us from the Richard Ford opening to the Patricia Highsmith mid-section (the murder and its aftermath recall Ripley Under Ground) to the Hollywood silliness of the rest. So far as one can tell, he hasn't noticed and doesn't expect us to either.

It is easy to like The Big Picture but hard to admire it. You keep on reading, mostly to see just how absurd it can get. After a certain point, the whole novel amounts to no more than a nakedly earnest pitch for a movie. Fox now have screen rights, but they'll probably change the title, already used for a satire on Hollywood directed by Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap fame. So even if the film succeeds, the book will soon be forgotten.