Mild and bitter down at the grouchers' club

Roger Clarke is disappointed to see some splendid villainy diluted in the Soho wine-bar whining of the literati
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The Independent Culture

Kill Your Darlings by Terence Blacker (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99, 292pp)

Kill Your Darlings by Terence Blacker (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99, 292pp)

Literary Romans à clef are of interest to everyone - except, possibly, people outside the tawdry world of publishing, promotion and launches where misanthropic hacks get drunk on cheap white wine at miserable Soho bars. But one can safely say that Terence Blacker's novel - the story of a once-feted author who steals the brilliant manuscript of a star pupil - will probably not be of much interest to anyone inside this cloistered world of scribblers and parasites. PRs will look in vain for reconstructions of their grubby sex acts on the pool table of the Groucho Club. Blacker is a man plugged in to this world and, frankly, he isn't going to dish the dirt.

A mid-life crisis in a middle-class London male never fails to be dull and pathetic; the least one can hope for is a bit of decent spleen and caustic bile. Initially, in Kill Your Darlings, there is the hope that the narrator will turn out to be genuinely nasty and repulsive. Gregory Keays is a bitter man who has endured years of failure and writer's block after his initial promise in the vanguard of the Rushdie/McEwan generation. He has drifted into teaching a creative-writing course, and there he meets a troubling and troubled young man, Peter Gibson - in a class apart from the other mules and wannabes.

Naturally, Keays has a marriage in crisis, and naturally his wife is a dried-out feng shui expert who arranges their house in a deracinated imitation of Zen practice for magazine shoots. Naturally, there is also a teenager in situ, a teenaged son who Blacker characterises as a Kevin & Perry stereotype. Naturally, the whole family despise one another.

From this richly composted situation comes that toxic British flower: scepticism embracing universal contempt. When Keays ends up having an unexpected sexual relationship with the young author (who is besotted with the middle-aged loser: yeah, right), we have the sole expression of non-contempt. But then Keays dumps the kid; the boy commits suicide, Keays finds his body, fellates the corpse, then steals the boy's manuscript and manages to pass it off as his own.

All sorts of sub-plots now jostle uncomfortably - involvement with a gangster type and ghost-writing a novel for him, a falling-out with the son who bails out to live in a crack house and then effectively tries to blackmail Keays. A lot of rather silly goings-on, in fact, just when it seemed that the novel would benefit from a certain hardening of purpose. After all, the central drama is so dastardly, the sheer villainy so splendid, that the plot is only weakened by cartoonish swipes at the literary diaspora.

Kill Your Darlings is bitter, but not bitter enough, with satirical pretensions that seem less than barbed and more like a pool of unset jelly (enough Martin Amis swipes, already). Misanthropy can be terrifically entertaining - Larkin and Evelyn Waugh spring to mind - but, in the wrong hands, it just sounds like whining. Cheap white wining in miserable Soho bars, in fact.