Hollywood pirates and prose poems

Michael Bracewell applauds the delicacy and precision of William Boyd's short stories; The Destiny of Nathalie X and Other Stories by William Boyd Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 9.99
William Boyd is a writer whose precursors could be said to include Turgenev for the lucid style, Scott Fitzgerald for the softly tragic narratives, and Graham Greene for the eclectic range of settings and deceptively harsh morality. Boyd's new collection of short stories displays the full capacity of an arsenal of literary devices which, when aimed successfully, hit their targets with devastating accuracy.

Faced with the nightmare of contemporary Hollywood or the uneasy lives of cultured Europeans during the inter-war years, Boyd finds details and dialogues which bring rare worlds to life and describe their miniature dramas with a precision that grants deeper significance to seemingly simple episodes. Describing the awkward sex life of a contemporary courier company boss, on the other hand, Boyd loses the focus which is vital to his naturalistic style and has to resolve his story through the fashionable yet unsatisfying means of irony and caricature.

Short stories are notoriously difficult to write, and they usually bring out both the best and the worst in authors who attempt to achieve the technical dexterity which they require to succeed. This collection is no exception to that rule, showing Boyd as a writer who can fall foul of insipid romanticism and then achieve moments of unique brilliance. It is as though the best stories have been written with the least effort, while the less successful are visibly straining.

The title piece, "The Destiny of Nathalie X", must be one of the best analyses of the failure of Hollywood to rise above its own sophistry and engage with radical culture as anything other than fresh blood for a sated vampire. Written in the style of a documentary, it tells of an African film-maker whose Warholesque, improvisational cinema gives off the scent of big money to a gutless Hollywood producer. Attempting to court him with money, stars and flattery, the Americans reveal themselves as little more than pirates, engaged in cultural imperialism even in the capital of their own greedy empire. Everyone "has a theory about this town" - everyone save the black director whose fate Boyd makes us monitor as though it were our own.

Further encounters with fragile destiny are delivered in "N is for N" a near prose poem of fictional biography and "Cork", which describes the relationship between an Englishwoman and a Portuguese man in spare fragments woven into a tense narrative of emotional exploitation.

At his best, Boyd can set a scene in a sentence, deftly selecting those details required to maintain suspense while weighting the tone to suit the temperament of the narrator. Once in character, Boyd can place us behind his eyes - something most writers struggle to achieve. The failures are those stories which are either too slender to support the style or too alien in subject to Boyd's interest in the more romantic levels of history and society. A story about love of the Latin - in music and women - is like a Mike Leigh film which doesn't quite work, and "Hotel des Voyageurs" seems too much in love with its own good taste to be more than lightly perfumed. But this is an arresting collection by a fine writer making full use of his formidable talents.