Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

A student poseur plagued by acne and cold feet
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The Independent Culture

The logic is powerful. Stick the writer of a successful thirtysomething TV drama in a room with a keyboard for a few months, and you'll emerge with the next big thing in popular male fiction. Well, almost; for Cold Feet scribe David Nicholls's debut novel is more grad-lit than lad-lit. It eschews the cool, urbane sophistication of the trendy (if repressed) media type for the charmless pomposity and sexual desperation of a first-year English student. Interesting.

Nicholl's dermatologically-challenged "hero" is certainly intended to strike at the hearts - or at least the funny bones - of the book-buying public. If insecurity is the benchmark of bloke-lit, Brian Jackson is off the scale. His problems don't even have the decency to remain skin deep, but bubble greasily to the surface every morning. With the scrawniness, nondescript hair, cream-and-black teeth and other snatches of physical disappointment that greet our poor protagonist in the mirror, we can understand why Brian seeks succour in the mind. And, of course, the glories of the University Challenge team - where he meets the beautiful, fickle Alice Harbinson. Whether he'll win either remains to be seen.

In keeping with the lad-lit blueprint, Brian is not a particularly nice guy. His flaws (cockiness, selfishness, myopia, envy) outweigh his bon points and he comically contradicts himself on most pages. Nicholls's portrayal of student affectations is accurate and funny. From Brian's self-congratulatory deployment of literary terminology to his class confusion and attempts at fashion ("I'm aiming for a sort of Graham Greene Third-Man look, but getting an Ultravox video"), the book is generally clever and well-written.

Pretty much anyone who attended university in the Eighties will get the references that clutter this novel. Brian, in donkey jacket and granddad shirt, meticulously makes over his student "garret" with postcards of James Dean, Che Guevara and Beckett. He pontificates over Battleship Potemkin and quotes Donne, Eliot, Fitzgerald. To this end Nicholls could be accused of the kind of demographic drip-feeding that makes it easy for the "I love nostalgia" generation to relate to such novels.

Though a keen observer, Nicholls tries too hard to be funny, weighing every sentence down with in-jokes and sarcastic self-references. The chapters with Alice's parents, and Brian's eagerness to "fit in", add up to some hilarious moments but, sadly, the comic zenith is passed too soon.

Inevitably, Nicholls is being lauded as the next Hornby - hardly a new marketing ploy, and a bit of a misnomer. As lad-lit goes, the boxes ticked include girl trouble, fights (although Brian only injures himself), an obsession with trivia and the gradual journey toward emotional maturity.

But Bri is softer, more sympathetic - or pathetic, anyway - and more prone to tears than your trad lad hero. Perhaps it would be better to look at the campus novels of Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and, of course, Kingsley Amis, to which Starter for Ten may be more indebted. But with all this literary cross-referencing, isn't there something a little deflating in the knowledge that our protagonist - however pretentious - would probably turn his nose up at the type of book in which he appears?

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