Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Yes, yes, Oscar was (among other things) a shameless old ham, but that passage convinced me never to join the jeering mob. Yet the same twists and tumults that make tales of "exposure" so much more nuanced than the media will ever admit also turn them into a terrific quarry for the imaginative writer. The interplay between mask and face, overt role and occult self, has a broad existential - as well as an erotic - interest. When Kant memorably wrote that "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made", he wasn't talking about sexual identity.

Lately, "disgrace" and its unsolicited blessings have inspired a true masterpiece by J M Coetzee. The Italian-based British writer Tim Parks has also made the subject his own, in novels - such as Destiny and Judge Savage - about men of rank brought low by family crisis. He revisits this turf again in Cleaver (Harvill Secker, £16.99). Here, the fallen idol is a proud, pugnacious journalist.

Harold Cleaver, the "eminent and overweight" interviewer and talk-show host, flees to a remote Alpine farmhouse in the Italian Tyrol after his son Alex publishes a barely-disguised "novel" about his father's wicked ways. In a transparent roman à clef, Cleaver the grand inquisitor stands exposed as a lying, bullying, philandering phoney, a hollow fraud who has spent a career indulging "an appetite for celebrity" that he knows to be "monstrously empty". Pursued (he thinks) by the jeering mob, Harold scarpers above the snowline. He skulks in the ruined house of a dead Nazi, living as a peasant among peasants - his sinister neighbours, and source of an intriguing sub-plot.

Freezing in the "Rosenkranzhof" (if Oedipus haunts this book, so does Hamlet), he tries to recapture silence and serenity. Emotionally, even literally (as he shovels dung in the cows' byre), Harold struggles to clear the crap out of his life.

His rambling, gripping inner monologue is punctuated by sulphurous chunks of the son's book - about growing up in the shadow of his multiple betrayals, amid "the crossed wires of chronic hypocrisy". To Alex, this gross father has consumed everything - fame, family and floozies - and in return emits nothing but hot air.

Cleaver ranks with the finest of Parks's club-class malcontents. An ogre with charisma, he compels as much as he repels. As he acts out his humiliation, he thinks it through: does scandal count as "a stumbling-block, a form of promotion, or an initiation ceremony?" He relishes release from the merry-go-round of faked media opinions on such topics as "the never-ending pathos of the LibDems". And when Alex climbs the mountain with a startling secret of his own, we grasp that a breakdown might flip over into a breakthrough.

As a sultan of the studios, Cleaver often seems to belong to the smugger age of Robin Day rather than today's leaner, meaner times. No matter: this novel should be required reading for all who preach from a media pulpit. It shows the hunter hunted, the exposer exposed. And it inspires - as only fiction could - sympathy for the old devil.