Flesh on the bone

Is this a Nineties Catcher in the Rye?
Rule of the Bone

by Russell Banks

Secker, pounds 9.99

Any novel that sports a plug from Elmore Leonard, virtuoso purveyor of thrillingly camp and scything American criminology, must be worth a look. is a tale from the so-called underclass, narrated by a 14-year-old boy. Chappie leaves home for a picaresque life of crime: he shacks up with various of American's disadvantaged, gets a tattoo - a skull and crossbones, sans skull - and assumes the appropriate name, Bone. Banks, it seems, is trying to go deeper than the highly wrought surfaces of Leonard. But the suspicion looms that he is just digging himself a bigger hole.

Here is the first sentence. "You'll probably think I'm making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or even luckier but I'm not." It hints at both the virtues and the vices of Banks's 400- page ventriloquism. On the one hand, the refreshing scarcity of punctuation gets across the racing, uninflected speech of a channel-surfing teenager. Bone's pronouncements are frequently both funny and poignant, and his artificially untutored prose can click home with poetic finesse: he says of his cat "it was like there was the concentration of a person inside his furry head".

The downside adumbrated by that first sentence turns out to be that wants to be the next Catcher in the Rye (the blurb perilously trumpets as much). But where Holden Caulfield at least had the manners to be chronically confused, Bone grants us the debatable privilege of sharing in his moral epiphanies. These climax in a somewhat creative distinction between crime and sin. Bone's rule is that the former is not worth worrying about, because the victims are rich anyway, but the latter is a far heavier deal.

The recompense for this internal banality, however, is a generous splash of external colour. Most of Bank's low lifes wittily avoid being knee- jerk caricatures. Bruce, the violent iron-punishing biker, find a touching redemption in death; I-Man, the Rastafarian has considerably more substance than the ganja smoke in which we first see him wreathed. Most terrifying is Buster, a philistine Humbert Humbert for the video age; Bone's attempt to rescue his small Lolita cannot help but make us warm to our narrator.

Naturally, Banks has big themes in mind. Somewhere in the bloated chronicle of Bone's peregrinations is a provocative dissection of racial mores in America, which occasionally surfaces in some beautifully ironic observations: "In my experience with white people when it comes to dealing with kids and blacks it's the really old and feeble ones who're more trusting than the healthy middle aged and younger people, probably due to the elderlies not having very long to live". A lovely comic pause: Banks is parsimonious with commas, but when he hauls one out he knows what to do with it. And there is qualified optimism in the characterisation of Bone, a boy who has been sexually abused yet refuses to parade his victimhood. But the novel's saccharine, upbeat ending looks like an abrogation of responsibility by the author: in retrospect, the nihilism becomes no more than a fey diversion.