Is This The Way You Said? By Adam Thorpe

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Beneath the song of the modern English poet you too often discern the simper of the modern Anglican parson: that "inner parson'' needs checking, not to say stamping on. Similarly, the modern short-story writer perhaps needs to conquer his or her inner Morrissey. The genre is not so much debased as deflated - wedded to the dying fall. In Is This The Way You Said? we see the perfection of deprecation, spurred by wit, watered by pity, fed by observation. It's marvellous, but you're left with a touch of wormwood on your tongue.

It's a book about men; but not great men, or even the Little Men batted about by the powerful, but small men - the ones who dream and yearn and compromise and stamp their foot when their compromises are pointed out to them. Thus, the self-esteem - professional and sexual - of a short timpanist in a provincial orchestra collapses in a hail of crumbs and turkey breast as his wife taunts him once too often. In Heavy Shopping, a "golden boy'' executive at a corporate gathering far from his pregnant wife is forced to concede that his wife's premature delivery might have had more to do with rough sex than with the heavy shopping she was carrying when the waters broke. When a genuinely successful man is introduced, he too tumbles into disillusion. A rambler follows the old paths across the fields, even though they now run through schoolrooms, offices, and eventually police stations. A disappointed poet finds a Latin text which he is convinced is an original work of prophetic genius, only to be informed by his translator that it's nothing but a grand pastiche. Women seem always in the right, though the reader, and the men, don't always know why; the answer is that this collection is saturated with the awareness of a vast historical debt.

Like all fine writers, Thorpe is ambidextrous: he uses cliché as deftly as original image. He is as easy in the unspeakably naff idiom of corporate jargon as in the soars and swoops of lyricism. Jack, sitting in the hospice, looks out at the leaves and wonders, "Why do those new leaves on the ash appear to be coaxing the air into them as they quiver or lie still?'' Sometimes the effect is gloriously bathetic: "a fat man in a shiny black coat, looking like a walking aubergine'.' Often beauty and banality conjoin. Thus Duncan imagines cowboys: "they'd lean out on the stoop and look out into the deep dark desert, the canyons and the wotsits and the secret watering holes and the tiny fires of the Indians.''

The author does allow himself some curious tics. The way that everyone, of whatever class, slips in the addressee's first name in any conversational exchange struck me as distinctly 1950s. Arty types are almost formulaically precious and self-regarding. Conversely, names like Ivor, Saul, Tobias and Shelley argue a mite too much Murdoch in the author's reading.

The darker stories, such as the one in which a man learns to distrust anything that gives him pleasure because pleasure awakens the gods "with their bleepers", are heart-rending even while they're Gothic, but the last story, the title story, is pure Greek: a revenge tragedy whose bleakness is all the more horrible for being expressed in the most exquisite prose in the book.