There is this assumption that artists can behave as they like - trample over other people's feelings, flout the conventional rules of morality - so long as the art they are producing is worthwhile. It is an assumption especially popular among artists. But what if - as must often be the case - there is some suspicion that the artist is a mediocrity? This is the question explored by Patrick McGrath's lurid Port Mungo, in which Jack Rathbone, a young English painter, shakes off the trammels of civilised life in London and New York, and moves to the Honduran mangrove swamps of Port Mungo, in search of inspiration à la Gauguin.
The book isn't short on incident - drunken scenes, sexual infidelities, mysterious deaths - nor on colourful characters. There's Jack's blowsy, brawling wife, Vera Savage, herself a painter; the dissolute doctor Johnny Hague, his moral backbone eaten away by the monotony of life in the tropics; and Gin, Jack's prim adoring sister, through whose biased eyes the story is told. This vivid, intoxicating novel often provokes, sometimes exasperates, but never bores.