On tour with the Euro-tottie

EUROPA by Tim Parks Secker pounds 9.99
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THERE'S a fierce, manic darkness at the heart of Tim Parks's best novels that seems entirely original, unashamed. His books are luridly angry, but the bitterness is sweetened by intelligent social commentary, the blackness strewn with brilliant shards of sadness and humanity.

But the sweetness has been in scarcer and scarcer supply in his recent work and in this, his ninth novel, it peters out. Just as Parks reaches the height of his powers - for he is as ever complex, subtle, clever, confident, and controlled - he's also at his least engaging.

Welcome to the mind of Jerry, a 45-year-old university lecturer, "sitting slightly off-centre on the long back seat of a modern coach crossing Europe". Jerry is English but has long lived and taught in Milan, from where a group of foreign lecturers (together with their inevitable Italian student groupies) are on their way to lobby their Euro MP, about the recent reduction of their salaries and working conditions.

Jerry - missing his daughter's 18th birthday party for the trip - despises the mission, his "feckless colleagues" and indeed everyone on the coach except for her - italicised but unnamed throughout. She is his ex-mistress, the woman with whom he has enjoyed "more erotic pleasure" than with anyone in his life and for whom he destroyed his relationship with his wife. But she then left him and now he wants to test himself, prod the wounds, to see if he is over her. Another motive for joining the trip is the "tottie- rich environment".

Jerry, then, is your standard womaniser - a man who obsessively chases sex but cares little for women and still less for himself. And as he sits on the coach, gets off to pee, makes a phone call, masturbates in a hotel room, flirts with a plumply willing student, we are treated to the continuous "urgent chatter" of his standardly antagonistic mind.

Parks's grasp of the curdled savagery of male sexuality (aptly encapsulated in the aggressively ugly verb "to shag") is acute. And the plush, modern claustrophobia of the air-conditioned coach - the sordid, lazily incoherent banter of male lecturers (especially the hated Welsh Indian Vikram with his crotch-sniffing dog), the banal videos, the rain on the window, the chill, grey ribbon of autostrada - are sourly memorable.

But there's one problem: Jerry is a bore. He talks about himself in rambling, unpunctuated sentences which - flitting self-indulgently from thought to thought - frequently span half a page. The contents of his head have no paragraph breaks; he incurs (or relates) precious little dialogue with other people. It's all perfectly in character but there's no relief; the text is all density and introspection and no fresh air.

Bores - Widmerpool, Malaprop - have always invaded literature, often to dazzling and comic effect. But a whole novel? You wouldn't spend an evening with Jerry; if you found yourself standing next to him at a party, you'd develop an urgent need to check out the canapes. Maybe the ex-love affair - drooling memories of which fleck Jerry's stream of self-absorption - is supposed to carry us closer to this misanthrope's heart. But Parks is surprisingly ungiving to his reader. So what little we learn of the (palpably loveless) affair - that he hit her when he discovered she was unfaithful, that she wears (yeah, yeah) sexy French underwear; that they had particularly memorable coitus at a hotel in Rheims - the details lead us no closer to these people. They don't - as one by now sadly needs them to - overturn any of our perceptions about Jerry; they don't reveal the skull beneath his skin.

The author paints his insecure, lying, misogynistic bastard (anti-hero is too flattering; it implies charisma) with flair, but novels need more than a fierce, static, linguistic brilliance (and this has it) to work. A well-executed monologue that stands still, mesmerised by its own tone- perfection, is (for me) a literary cul-de-sac. Novels are slippery things and it takes more than Mephistophelean writing to make a good one.