Jonathan Cape 12.99 (296pp) 11.69(free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Skinheads, by John King

A working-class hero pulls his punches

"The Nineties had belonged to the children of the hippies, drugged-up flower-power babies charging top dollar for peace and love. The offspring of the skins and punks and football hooligans were claiming the new century." At a time when "white English working-class culture" or a reductive, demeaning interpretation thereof is under the media microscope, any novelist who can enlighten the rest of the world as to the realities behind the smug generalisations of both left and right should not only be treasured, but heeded.

Once it may have been sufficient to describe John King as "the nation's finest writer of football fiction", but he long since transcended this classification. King's achievement since his debut has been enormous: creating a modern, proletarian English literature at once genuinely modern, genuinely proletarian, genuinely English and genuinely literature. His novels immerse his readers in the stream of consciousness of people who, as routinely depicted in the media, barely have consciousness at all.

However, with Skinheads, his seventh novel, the subtext is in danger of becoming the text. It seems to have been written specifically to render explicit what was left implicit in his earlier works. It is a gentler, easier read than its predecessors, but easier isn't always better.

In England Away, the final volume in the "football trilogy" which began with The Football Factory and continued in Headhunters, King was able to generate enormous poignancy, by juxtaposing the reminiscences of an old soldier preparing to attend a reunion of his regiment with the roistering "two World Wars, one World Cup" braggadocio of a bunch of hoolies introduced in his previous novels. Here,, by comparison, the symbolism is clunky. "Estuary Cars" is a skinhead-run minicab firm which has been ferrying King's characters around throughout the loosely-knit saga. Here it cruises into the spotlight, the narrative focusing on a triad of protagonists associated with the company.

The firm's patriarch, Terry English (one devoutly wishes that the author had resisted the temptation to subtitle the opening section "Estuary English"), is a veteran skinhead knocking 50. He is mourning his dead wife, attempting to keep his semi-reformed-hoolie nephew Nutty Ray gainfully employed and out of trouble, and worrying that his 15-year-old son Laurel (aka "Lol") is developing hippie tendencies. Plagued both, by persistent ill-health and a crush on a younger employee, Terry dreams of reopening a derelict club called The Union Jack as an inclusive shrine to a primal version of skinhead culture unbesmirched, by association with far-right racists. The author's message could not be clearer if the "author's message" were watermarked on to every page.

Even hoolie Ray, who did extensive reading while in nick, articulates a persuasive strain of left patriotism which stretches from George Orwell to Billy Bragg. The author's patented ease with the greater and lesser arcana of pop culture is once again in evidence (ska, blue-beat, 2-Tone and Oi being the dishes of the day). But even some of the prose "Ray turned the engine off, unrolling his six-foot-four frame, the hyenas in the Nissan suddenly silent as seventeen stone of skinhead muscle marched their way" uncomfortably evokes a literate, left-wing version of a Richard Allen pulp novel.

The ace street-fighter of contemporary English fiction seems to be telegraphing his punches rather too obviously. This, as any of his characters could have told him, is not necessarily a winning strategy in a real ruck.

Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic' is published, by Faber

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