Stuart Evers's collection 10 Stories About Smoking was a mesmerising examination of the human condition, the clouds of smoke exhaled by its protagonists mirroring their ability to mist and obscure truth. Some of the themes touched on there – persistent memories, wistful longing, self-deception – as well as the ubiquity of cigarettes, recur in his potent debut novel.
Joe and his best buddy O'Neil sell dreams of heaven – luxury apartments with illicit trimmings – to people with more money than morals in Las Vegas. Among their colleagues, only O'Neil knows that Joe's real name is Mark and that he escaped a parochial northern English town 12 years before. The fake identity is not only a front but a defence; Mark's way of walling off his traumatic past. He is tormented by memories of his first love, the sparky goth Bethany who was meant to come to New York with him, and of his lonely father. That and his growing disillusionment and contempt for his clients fuel his decision to face his ghosts back home.
As with 10 Stories, Evers displays his acuity in myriad small ways. Constructing his alter ego, Joe, Mark observes that "the humdrum was what gave life ... the ring of authenticity." In a Vegas casino, he realises that "Vegas runs on ... the perniciousness of hope."
Evers conjures with aplomb the contrasting worlds of rich, venal businessmen in Vegas and a dreary northern English town. The former is exemplified by an establishment exuding obsequious servitude to men whose wealth buys them power and immunises against shame; the latter by the shattered dreams and frustration of those who don't fit. Evers portrays those on the margins of society with sensitivity; the tale of the two motherless teenagers Mark and Bethany, whose outer scepticism and bravado masks a need for love and understanding, is poignant and compelling even without the tragedy that we know awaits.
Evers is exceptionally good at dialogue: the cascading monologues of a taxi driver, hairdresser and bitter photographer made me simultaneously wince in recognition and smile.
A tiny typo apart (Beth arrives at a hairdresser's at 9.10am but leaves at 8.45am), this is deliciously addictive stuff. Rather like smoking. I hope to see nicotine patches in the next book.