Good Clean Fun by Michael Arditti

Tales of innocence and experience
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In each of Michael Arditti's novels - The Celibate (1993), Pagan and Her Parents (1996) and Easter (2000) - we witness flesh becoming word. The Celibate recounts an ordinand's arrival in London, and the consequent challenges to his notions of vocation, faith and duty. Pagan and Her Parents concerns a gay man's fight to become father to his close friend's daughter after her death. Easter attends a north London parish, and considers the place of gay men and women in the Church of England.

If contexts vary, Arditti's key theme - the relationship between sexual and spiritual instincts - has been omnipresent. Storylines, too, share a trajectory: the initiation of the innocent into a world of experience.

Good Clean Fun collects a dozen stories which - like his novels - display Arditti's moral earnestness, ear for the oddities of English speech and attention to social complexities. The best are the boldest, adopting voices and circumstances far from their author's. "The Pillar of Strength", for example, introduces a woman whose husband admits his homosexual infidelity after 35 years. She notes pithily that "if he had been sleeping with a stranger, so had I."

"Uncle Brian" - narrated by a young victim of sexual abuse - recounts a melodrama with impressive understatement, though its dénouement feels a little forced. Likewise, "Marriage of Convenience" - concerning an immigration arrangement between a gay man and a gay woman - moves rather obviously towards its resolution. On their honeymoon, they are bewildered to find themselves making love. Just one piece - the title story - is a misfire: a stand-up comic's monologue which rarely transcends parody.

Overall, Arditti's prose is much more assured in tone than previously. At their best, these pieces reminded me of Patrick Gale, or the Aids-related stories of Adam Mars-Jones. The epidemic haunts a number of Arditti's tales, and is addressed directly in "The Isolation Ward". This moving work rings true. While mentioning combination therapies in passing (they don't always work), it might otherwise have been set at any point since Mars-Jones's own "Slim", now almost 20 years old.

Arditti's characters inhabit a slightly quaint England; on occasion, a little outmoded. In "Haverstock Hill", a man replies to a personal ad not by phone or text, but letter. Most are bookish or unworldly; the disappointed or soon-to-be-disappointed. They teach, work in libraries, or find themselves unexpectedly in jail. Though many are in London, the heave and pressure of the metropolis bears more lightly than other concerns.

Good Clean Fun is just that: comfortable, reassuring, everyday. Both the title and plot of "Contentment" sum up the whole. Richard, a mature gentleman, falls for Gabriel, a rent boy, and buys him for the night. The next morning, he finds himself discussing the experience over a nice cup of tea with Gabriel's approving mother.

Richard Canning

The reviewer is writing a biography of Ronald Firbank