Overdosing on sleaze

Clever or conventional? Paul Pickering explores the sick sentimentality of Gordon Burn's second novel; Fullalove, by Gordon Burn, Secker & Warburg, pounds 14.99

Following the American novelist Richard Ford, who took a brilliant look at journalistic burn-out in The Sportswriter, Gordon Burn, an award-winning sportswriter for GQ magazine and winner of the Whitbread First Novel prize for Alma Cogan, has written a tale about the breakdown of Norman Miller, a seedy British hack.

When I opened Fullalove, I thought it was going to be very significant indeed. We are told the work is not ironic, therefore automatically accept that irony rules. The main character dreams of a life as his near-namesake, Norman Mailer. There are sharp self-contradictory phrases - "sentimental as a lollypop"- and the misinformation that Mailer stabbed his second wife with a Swiss army knife (rather than a potato peeler). I imagined that nothing Miller told us was going to be true and that, swept on by his tide of bar-room fibs, we were scheduled to look into eternity through the dead eyes of a Fleet Street equivalent of John Osborne's Archie Rice.

But Burn throws his net wider and one finds oneself in the more conventional territory of updated Swiftian rubbish-picking; but here the noble "sadness of spirit" of our Lunchtime O'Angst is drowned out by the thud of dead donkeys dropping: "A boy of twelve has provided 'the ultimate Father's Day present - the gift of life' by using a tea-towel to staunch the bleeding when a fish tank shattered and sliced through his father's throat and windpipe..." The language veers from the grandiloquent demotic of the opening, through male mag- speak to Martin Amis with the speakers distorting.

Once a foreign reporter, Miller is now a domestic murder "colour" man, who has in tow a completely unbelievable photographer named Heath and another cut-out called "Clit" Carson who sexually "sees to" the wives or girlfriends of killers in return for stories. When Miller is not breaking into hospitals to snap a dying gay TV star who confesses to him about having oral sex with his father and how he ever after hated white liquids; a cuddly toy called Fullalove, from one of these excursions, becomes a love object with whom Miller imagines growing old: "High on my pillow, standing sentry over my blackened, worm-meat remains will be the companion of my declining years, my confidence, my china, my (if you insist - and, let's face it, you will insist, liking the sound, the inference, the suggestion of some strange intimacy, the subtle but palpable eroticism) - my fetish".

Burn relishes sleaze so much he is forced to tango back in a literary direction to make us believe Miller is in the throes of a "spiritual emergency". Scrabbling for significance, he is like a cat trying to run up plate glass; the penultimate scene, which has Fullalove engaged in a gang bang, shows a serious purpose coming apart at the seams.

I wasn't horrified by the violence of Miller's homilies about pony intestines being draped around young girls' necks; what I couldn't stomach was the sentimentality. "All around us in the Bell are apophthegms, injunctions and motivating slogans that hung in the newsrooms of the Street, ancient and modern. 'Impact! Get it in your first paragraph!' "

Burn has produced a painstakingly sharp evocation of a Keystone Cop journalistic life, which owes more to Charles Dickens than to Jacques Derrida, and draws on a junkyard of influences, from modern stand-up comics to Death of a Salesman. So is this tale of a hack's dog's life a fitting sequel to Alma Cogan? Up to a point, Lord Copper. This often brilliant novel's slimy bite does not always live up to the clever bark of the opening pages.

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