Appearances can be deceptive. At first glance, Christopher Hart's second novel Rescue Me looks like a straightforward story of urban desperation. Daniel Swallow, account manager at Orme, Odstock and Oliphant advertising agency, has cooked up a crazy PR stunt for cable television station, JACKAL TV. Three "minor, but well-loved" television personalities are to be propelled skywards in a hot-air balloon, from which they will dispense small foam televisions that, if found, can be exchanged for the real deal. The stunt goes wrong and the celebrities are lost, presumed dead. Daniel loses his job and returns to an aimless slacker existence with his landlady, Kate and her studenty daughter, Jess.
Suddenly Hart has made his first change of gear. Now the novel looks like it's about to become something completely different, a humorous tale of indolent idleness. This stage does not last long. Stuck for something to do, Daniel decides to become a gigolo. As Hart is by day the literary editor for the Erotic Review, it seems likely that he's setting the stage for a sexy romp. But the scenes where Swallow goes out with women as an escort are sensitive rather than sexual, a wonderfully elegant depiction of what it might be like to work as a male prostitute. There are a couple of comical encounters, with one woman touching him up during a West End farce entitled "Your Wife is Wearing My Trousers" and another turning out to be his friend's mother. His most surprising client, however, is his best friend's girlfriend, Beth. Beth is a model-slash-actress whose career is beginning to take off. After a brutal first encounter, the two of them begin a very modern romance, haunted by the shadows of Beth's heroin addiction and penchant for sadomasochistic sexual partners. At first the relationship seems doomed, but slowly Hart reveals that this love affair forms the true heart of his novel, and all the previous cynicism was just a hard shell to hide the soft centre of Rescue Me.
Relationship novels are hard to get right, and it's a testament to Hart's ability as a prose stylist that he makes us care about his characters and see them as more human that the two-dimensional stereotypes occasionally found in books of this type. Hart establishes his literary credentials early on with funny jokes about Musil's The Man Without Qualities ("he may be just a hollow shell of man, but he weighs a fucking ton") and references to other novels, such as Jay McInerney's Story of My Life that take place in similar milieux. This doesn't stop him from being profane when the scene requires it, and part of the charm of the novel comes from the combination of a sophisticated literary style and the occasional sleazy sex-scene.
He clearly enjoys the company of his characters, and works hard to make the feckless protagonist sympathetic. Beth, the heroin-addicted actress is also redeemed in a surprising last-minute twist, before the book settles down to a satisfyingly cosy ending. It was only after finishing the book that I realised just how much potentially unacceptable material Hart had sneaked in to a novel I would be happy giving my mother to read.
Hart's previous novel, The Harvest, was praised for its rural setting and for being a change from the usual thirtysomething urban relationship book. It's a brave move to change tack completely, and Hart is to be praised for taking this risk. I think readers who enjoyed Hart's first novel will be impressed by the follow-up, and the city setting soon gives way to scenes in Cornwall and a universe of chunky-knit sweaters, charity shops and bowls of soup. Rescue Me is the perfect title for this novel, a plaintive cry that Hart is generous enough not to let pass unheard. *