Independent choice: literature for lads

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The Independent Culture
For a while, it looked as though masculinity was in crisis - confused, embarrassed, uncertain what it wanted. But to judge by the latest crop of paperback-original novels, all that has changed. Now men have sorted out what they want, and their list of demands turns out to be surprisingly easy to fill: they're not interested in successful careers or steady girlfriends (none of the first-person narrators in these books has either) so long as they can have alcohol, drugs, punk rock, a modicum of violence and occasional sex with their best mate's ex-girlfriend.

It helps, too, if the young lady - how shall we put this? - is prepared to motor in reverse gear. To put it plainly: most of these books share the conviction that anal intercourse (with a woman - all these men are unequivocally hetero) is the greatest treat a boy can have.

Perhaps we should start by mentioning the exception to this rule: John L Williams's Faithless (Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99). Williams is best known as an advocate of hard-boiled US crime fiction, so I half-expected his first novel to be a homegrown version. Mercifully, Faithless is decidedly British, in its weary, self-deprecating tone and its faithfully observed setting - London in the early Eighties.

The narrator, Jeff, a one-time aspiring rock musician, gets involved in a misguided attempt to blackmail a former mate who is now a big star. It all goes horribly wrong, and he ends up in trouble with far greedier and more vicious criminals. (The analogy with Thatcherism is blatant but not over-schematic.)

True, the book does have its anal side. Jeff works in a record-shop (it's presumably this, and the action in the vicinity of Highbury, that the blurb-writer had in mind when comparing Williams to Nick Hornby), which provides the excuse for some tedious rock trivia. The particularity of Williams's London settings and his unaffectedly witty prose are compensations. They look especially attractive next to the hugely affected, would-be witty prose of Charles Kennedy Scott's Low Alcohol (Headline Review, pounds 8.99).

It's worth quoting a paragraph from Scott: "So where am I going? Yes, you may well ask: Where am I going? And, if you see me walking the streets with my aimless face, my off-centre hairstyle, my worn clothes and my shiny new boots, you may well wonder: where is he going?"

Well, he'd have to be going somewhere pretty bloody interesting to justify that blather. Sadly, despite some nicely turned moments of farce, Low Alcohol is a dull and profoundly annoying satirical fantasy in the manner of Martin Amis, full of urban angst, millennial portents and significant names. Scott's imagination falls between the stools of merciless precision and bludgeoning savagery.

The names, for example, are neither overtly funny (remember Caduta Massi in Amis's Money?) or blatantly meaningful (as in John Self). So our apathetic, self-pitying narrator is called Doug Down; he is haunted by a paranoid woman calling herself Lucia de Londres and his best mate (whose ex-girlfriend he eventually shags) is a soi-disant comedian called Andy Cipolin. The ex-girlfriend herself is Annis, which turns out to be a nickname derived from her favourite sexual practice. No prizes for guessing what that is (in Amis's London Fields, Nicola Six was similarly inclined). "Most girls like it," Annis tells Doug, "though they prefer not to admit it."

John McKenzie's Are You Boys Cyclists? (Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99) is more critical of male fantasies; which is not to say they're not on offer. "Don't worry," Matt, the narrator, reassures the reader: "This book isn't going to miss being part of the wank industry if I can help it." It is, you'll gather, a self-referential book, mixing a narrative about boxing, drugs, unemployment and sex in the Edinburgh of 1977 with musings on writing and reading books. Matt isn't far wrong when he describes it as "a cross between Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Jeanette Winterson and Kurt Vonnegut".

The climax arrives with twin orgies of violence and sex - intercut descriptions of a boxing match and a marathon sex session with Matt's best mate's ex, culminating in, um, a trip to the moon. It's hard to say if this is intended as male wish-fulfilment, or some sort of criticism. I'm not sure, either, whether this book is genuinely joyless and solipsistic or just pretending.

Mark Blackaby's Look What They've Done to the Blues (Gollancz, pounds 9.99) is straightforward wish fulfilment: the hero, Charlie (a professional thug who's been to university), combines a middle-class frame of reference with working-class credibility. He is good-looking, tough, clever, irresistible to women and destined to be hugely rich, if he can collect the proceeds from an old job - a task that provides the vestigial plot. Even with these advantages, he contrives to be one of life's losers (thankfully, or the book would be unbearably smug). It's his ex who gets shagged by his best mate, and he doesn't get the ultimate sexual treat but merely watches a video of somebody else doing it. Hardly elevating, but certainly entertaining. That's how boys like it.