Intimations of morality

Human Punk By John King (Jonathan Cape £10)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Asked to name his favourite contemporary writer at last year's Cheltenham Festival, Alan Sillitoe picked John King. "I don't know who reads him though," Sillitoe said, "just football hooligans I suppose." At this point, his fellow speaker John Bayley roused himself from reverie and piped up, "Yes, Headhunters, England Away, very good, very good." Assuming the Oxford Professor of English had heard correctly, the Chelsea firm seems to have a representative on high table.

If John Bayley - not a man to be motivated by fashion - liked the incandescent Football Factory trilogy, he and others with similarly classical sympathies will be delighted by King's latest work, Human Punk. The action begins in a London satellite town in the 1970s and stretches to the present day. King evokes the punk era superbly through the narrator Joe Martin: in 1977, a 15-year-old Slough boot boy in a cap-sleeve T-shirt. Joe and his companions would be entertaining enough if they stuck to breaking into cars, giving and receiving beatings and eyeing up older girls in social club discos. The novel becomes far more than entertainment after the night Joe and his best mate Smiles are beaten up and thrown into the Grand Union Canal, an incident from which Smiles never recovers. Shortly afterwards we realise that the intimations of morality in the early chapters, which seem out of place in what promises to be a realist shocker, herald instead the story of an old-fashioned literary hero: a sensitive soul in insensitive surroundings.

As the years pass, a final reckoning between Joe and his aggressors is inevitable. Joe's instinct is to affirm human life and decency; his method is far from sentimental or pretentious, incorporating both humour and anger. His perfect woman has peroxide hair, fishnets and a rubber miniskirt - not because his tastes are debased, but because he just prefers the "snakebite drinkers of Britain" to the "cocaine sniffers of Miami". He almost dares the reader to disagree, and makes one ashamed of not understanding his preferences.

However, for someone striving to do the right thing, Joe's emotional range is oddly narrow. His moral temperature is undisturbed, whether he is empathising with a woman on a Siberian train or sticking the boot in. The narrator's voice throughout is but a single note, albeit a musical one. This would be believable if Joe were supposed to be a psychopath rather than a sympathetic character. However, King's understanding of people and his novelistic skills must be given the benefit of the doubt. The cumulative effect of this monotone narrative voice builds the tension, allowing King to create suspense out of what is essentially a clash of philosophies. Until the final page we remain unsure whether Joe's optimistic world-view will be triumphantly vindicated or tragically refuted.

Hearing that a novel is written in the "stream of consciousness" is often enough to make the heart sink. We should be grateful to King for reminding us that the result does not have to be tedious or impenetrable.