Men From the Boys, By Tony Parsons

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The Independent Culture

Tony Parsons has spent the last decade colonising the feminine ground with his popular fiction. Now, in the final instalment of the series of novels that began with Man and Boy and continued with Man and Wife, he moves from "chick-lit" into "hen-lit" territory with a tale of empty nesters and mid-life flight.

Everyman narrator, Harry Silver, is seemingly sanguine about approaching 40. Happily settled in north London with his second wife, Cyd, and his "blended" family of kids and step-kids, all looks quiet on the home front. But then one day 14-year old Pat, his son from his first marriage, comes home from school to announce that he wants to move back in with his mother.

A "card-carrying single parent", Harry is devastated by the news. Unable to work, he spends his days spilling tears into his Cath Kidston apron and bemoaning his lot: "What was the good of me? What was I for? My sense of self was wrapped up in that boy. My measure of my worth. And with my boy not around, what was I worth?"

Harry's worth, as we know from Parsons's previous novels, is a delicate thing. Appalled by the "soft-bodied" males of his generation, he has a touchstone for masculinity that harks back to a time when men went off to war and came back to mow the lawn.

With Harry's own father bumped off in an earlier book, paternal reinforcements arrive in the shape of Ken Grimwood, one of his dad's old army pals. Taking Harry out of his pinny and off to the dog track, Ken has ancient male mysteries to impart - largely involving the art of boxing and "sprucing up".

While lacking the emotional punch of Man and Boy, Parsons' new book shows a more versatile writer at work. The plotline is familiar - custody battles, terminal illness, infidelity - but there is some arresting writing buried among the columnist's clichés. And if you can forgive the fact that every female character boasts the toned body of a 20-year-old Soho waitress, Parsons has astute observations to make about the slog of single parenthood and the complexities of second marriage.

Over the course of the trilogy, we have seen Harry grow as a father and husband, but it's as a son that he has yet to make his peace. This latest father-figure fantasy might prove a bridge too far for some of Parsons's female fans. For all Harry's new-man posturing, he's still the unreconstructed man-child we always suspected him to be.

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