Stories We Could tell You, by Tony Parsons

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The Independent Culture

It now appears that Burchill did her estranged ex something of a favour, since Parsons's Ambition was an dreary affair indeed. Its non-appearance in print has now enabled him, with several successful novels under his belt, to revisit that punk-era setting with a far better book.

This time around, Parsons has resisted the temptation to make all the characters direct surrogates for his former colleagues. Contrary to suggestions elsewhere, the photographer Misty, girlfriend to Terry Warboys, the character most clearly based on Parsons, is no Burchill clone. There are exceptions: Skip Jones - "the greatest rock writer in the world" - is Nick Kent in all but name; the uptight genius editor Kevin White bears a strong resemblance to NME's Nick Logan; the dangerous rock star Dag Wood caricatures Iggy Pop, and offstage bands The Sewer Rats and Leni & The Riefenstahls represent The Stranglers and Siouxsie & The Banshees.

The principal action of Stories We Could Tell (the title derives from a decidedly Old Wave source, a song by John Sebastian for The Everly Brothers) takes place on London's rock circuit over a single day and night: 16 August 1977, when Elvis Presley, ailing (Fisher) King of Rock, died on his throne. Terry and two other protagonists, all writers on The Paper, confront their destinies. Ray Keeley is a teenage hippie throwback, still long-haired, fringe-jacketed and obsessed with LA singer-songwriters in the brave new world of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, while Leon Peck is a squat-dwelling bourgeois leftie.

Terry has to face the possibility that Misty has shagged the notoriously well-hung Dag; Ray, the prospect of losing his job for being out of touch, unless he can score an interview with John Lennon. (Rather implausibly, John is passing through London.) Leon needs to avoid getting his head kicked in by The Sewer Rats' vicious fans; he discovers disco in the process, but has to miss the Leni gig he is supposed to be reviewing.

Most of the period detail holds up, although no one outside the South Bronx was using the expression "chill out" in 1977, and there was no such thing as "council tax" in the era of the rates. The rock-crit shoptalk with which the narrative is studded is almost painfully authentic.

The principal challenge faced by the author is that of steering a safe path between his own personal Scylla and Charybdis: the blowhard belligerence of his tabloid punditry, and the blokeishly complacent sentimentality of his fictional family sagas. He avoids the former rather more successfully than the latter.

Two of his three protagonists achieve a redemption as predictable as it is unlikely, and the symbolism of Misty's pink furry handcuffs will, for readers familiar with previous Parsons novels, telegraph the ending of Terry's plot strand from a couple of hundred pages away.

The besetting flaw of those earlier works was that they seemed to represent a boy's idea of manhood, an adolescent notion of grown-up life. Nevertheless, the medium-sized paradox here is that, by returning to the settings and obsessions of his youth, Parsons has managed to write the first adult novel of his career. It is a surprisingly engaging fusion of Bildungsroman and memory-lane ramble for ageing punks.

Charles Shaar Murray is author of 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and postwar pop' (Faber)