I must plead guilty to manufacturing this Brighton of mine as I never manufactured Mexico or Indo-China." So said Graham Greene of a novel which, 60 years on, keeps such a grip on the imagination that visitors to the coastal resort are invariably disappointed by the reality of a provincial town choc-a-block with buses ferrying people to the suburbs in time for high tea.
This has not prevented periodic attempts at The Great Brighton Novel. With his second novel, close on the heels of the admirable debut After the Raid, Chris Paling has come up with something which might have resulted had David Cook written Pulp Fiction. In his first novel, Paling created a wartime world strung somewhere between reality and madness, one in which the mind's cliffs of fall were as vivid as the railway carriages, asylum and terraced houses through which its troubled hero appeared to pass.
Deserters, told some while after the event by a bisexual wastrel, Cliffie, is rather more strung out. He has fetched up in Brighton and, needs must, moved in with Barry, the proprietor of a tarted-up greasy spoon. Before long, Cliffie is also in thrall to the disturbed May, a lodger in the place. Cliffie decides to spirit her out, and so begins something of a Walter-and-June odyssey, one which has both hoodlums and officialdom on their trail after a fracas on the Pier and their making off with another woman's child. Of a certain Mr. Hollinger we are told, "I'd never considered him to be a proper first division villain. He had too much intelligence for that. Pure villainy requires a good deal more mental instability." Such pithy remarks fill the novel, as Cliffie and May find it safer to separate and (after some nasty dealings that make Cliffie fearful for his lips) he ends up with a stint in Lewes gaol.
The story is not consistently told from Cliffie's point of view. Early on, he observes, for example, that "the darkness allows you to take a slice of the room and own it for a moment before passing on and finding another, until all of the room is yours." This authorial voice keeps creeping into Cliffie territory. "There's something haughty and feminine about the town. It's unforgivably ugly and new in too many places but there's still enough life in the lofty old harlot for her to throw her skirts round you and haul you close for a long slow dance." That, surely, is the legend-conscious voice of Paling, who then slips into this, more akin to Cliffie: "People who come for the day never see that. The place is a bitch to the day tripper, they're corralled down the worst dog-shit- laden streets, the poorest fattiest restaurants, the most expensive pubs with the dirtiest glasses. But it serves them right."
Just as Brighton town councillors were once alarmed by signs ("Buy Brighton Rock") which inadvertently advertised Greene's novel, they will doubtless distance themselves from Paling's view of the place. That would be blinkered of them. Whatever the faults of the novel's shifting tone, it has something of that distinct view of the world which made one certain that the author of After the Raid is among the most accomplished English novelists to emerge in recent years.