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Review: Magnificent Joe, By James Wheatley

Of mice and violent Geordies

It's a brave publisher that saddles a debut novel with the label "a present-day Of Mice and Men". But to be fair, this is a pretty gutsy debut. Set in an anonymous north-eastern town, it focuses on a group of men as they make their way from building site to pub to home, with the occasional grocery shopping trip that they try to keep to an absolute minimum.

Everybody dreams of change, particularly at the start of a freezing day's roofing, when the men consider "'Thirty-odd more years of this shite', and then everyone's lottery fantasy comes tumbling out … the same story day after day, slipping through clumsy mouths like worn rosary beads through arthritic hands." But this is a community in which not much happens, apart from one big thing that already did, and another that seems almost inevitable.

The most obvious parallel with Steinbeck's novel is Joe, a gentle man who has learning difficulties. Or, as he and other characters put it, he's "a mentalist". If he is this novel's equivalent to Steinbeck's Lennie, then his George, the man who reluctantly takes Joe under his wing, is our narrator, Jim.

In a prologue, Jim finds Joe dying in a lane, having been "caught" and badly beaten. The novel itself explains how he got there. Jim's part in all of this started when he was a teenager, about to sit his exams and get out of there, before a flash of anger put him in prison. By the time he comes out and slots back into the rut that his friends have carved out for themselves, resentments have already crystallised that will end in disaster. And that can only be bad news for a clumsy innocent such as Joe. By means of a lottery ticket, a dirty secret, quite a lot of casual violence, and a nasty piece of work called Barry, the status quo quickly unravels.

James Wheatley has worked as a labourer in a northern town (as well as a financial and business risk analyst), and he doesn't sentimentalise hard work, hard drinking and violence. A group of local children who antagonise Jim are "good kids, really. No, they're twats. Abortion should be compulsory." Jim is infuriated by Joe. But he does love him.

Magnificent Joe is a brutal little novel that manages also to be tender and funny. It might not really be the Of Mice and Men of our generation. But this ballsy debut shows great promise.

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