Kings of the Roundhouse, by John Preston

Surreal scrapes in the sleazy Seventies
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The Independent Culture

Characters in John Preston novels have identity crises. Not about who they are, but whether they have any identity at all. In Ink, Preston's brilliant second novel, the journalist Hugo had lost the will to write but found himself embroiled in a search for a crisis-torn yachtsman based on Donald Crowhurst.

Characters in John Preston novels have identity crises. Not about who they are, but whether they have any identity at all. In Ink, Preston's brilliant second novel, the journalist Hugo had lost the will to write but found himself embroiled in a search for a crisis-torn yachtsman based on Donald Crowhurst.

Five years later, here comes Kings of the Roundhouse. The central figure is Edmund, a young auditor and overweight sad-sack sent to sort out the anarchic balance-sheets of the Roundhouse. This iconic ex-railway building in Camden hosted acts like the Doors in the Sixties, grew decrepit in the Seventies, and closed for most of the next two decades.

Edmund, like Hugh in Ink, has an opinion of himself so low that it is off every social gauge. The Roundhouse and its last, festering employees provide a comic backdrop for his tribulations, and for Preston's inventive, powder-dry wit.

Preston excels at gormless characters in decrepit settings. The first third of the novel is set in "the Seventies", although Preston knowingly sticks the whole decade into a blender and comes up with a three-day week (1972) in the winter of discontent (1978). Playing fast and loose with chronology is excusable. What interests Preston is the opportunity to tell offbeat stories. Most of his scenes are surreally just out of kilter.

If the plot is slightly less secure than that of Ink, the quality of the writing - especially the dialogue, at which Preston is the most skilled of his contemporaries - is superb. He can flense to the funny-bone with a single sentence: "the sky was streaked with vermilion and Lincoln green, like a side of condemned bacon." His parodies of human behaviour draw as often on acute observation as comic exaggeration.

Preston's other talent is to make readers sympathise with wonderfully colourless characters. Edmund's pathetic crush on Lia, a soft-porn peddler's daughter, and his rivalry with Barney, a fantasist who is "king" of the Sanilav-leaking rock venue, are all related with a brutal but benign interest in the figures themselves. Preston is agreeably fond of even the most wretched of his creations.

Kings of the Roundhouse changes tack in its second part, whistling us through Eighties and Nineties via a series of press-cuttings (brilliant send-ups) and radio transcripts. The final section, set in the present, sees Barney and Edmund vying for Lia, with Edmund having risen with agreeable tracelessness to a position of wealth.

Preston continually trumps himself, producing minor characters from the first section at every turn, and creating weird and wacky tableaux. As with Ink, you emerge from the novel breathless with suppressed laughter. Every detail requires you to give not two, but three hoots. Preston is a natural.

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