Picador, £12.99, 432pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Champion, By Tim Binding
Brash, forceful and principle-lite, the Thatcherite hero started making his presence felt in fiction long before Mrs Thatcher's fall. His exemplars – Terence Blacker's Jonty Fixx, Charles Bosham in Julian Rathbone's Nasty, Very (1984), the narrator of Michael Dibdin's Dirty Tricks (1991) – are now the subject of PhD theses with titles like "The Blue Horde: Fictive Imaginings of the Eighties Free Market". Two decades later his place has naturally been usurped by the post-Thatcherite – Majorite, or even Blairite – hero, of whom Clark "Large" Rossiter, frontman of Tim Binding's latest novel, is thoroughly representative.
Like much of Binding's work, The Champion combines some tart reflections on "Englishness" with a Kentish setting. The nameless town where most of the action takes place is seen as a microcosm for waves of socio-economic change. Charles Pemberton, the diffident, self-conscious narrator, is the only child of the locale's energising spirit, an aggrandising self-made businessman and Thatcher idolator who begins by surfing the zeitgeist only to end up engulfed by it.
A crooked Lloyd's syndicate gratefully receives his life-savings. On the day that the family mansion is sold up, Mr Pemberton hangs himself in the greenhouse and the "broken times" of the early 1990s recession kick remorselessly in.
From the eyrie of his first-floor High Street window engraved with the legend "Charles Douglas Pemberton, Chartered Accountant", his heir is well placed to monitor the town's fluctuating traffic. Its chief revenant is boozy, déclassé "Large", returned to his juvenile stamping-ground after making a packet in the City. He is married to the glamorous and decidedly upmarket Sophie Marchand, whose teenage fling with him was the scandal of the era and whose wily father accompanied Charles's dad on his first trip to the underwriters. With Charles installed as his factotum, Large embarks on a symbolic business career, buying up pubs and wine bars, developing a chain of bespoke retirement hutches, and confirming his status as a debased version of Pemberton senior by moving into Charles's old home.
All this offers some promising material for a pointed little fable of the late 20th-century class system, in which each side of the equation is torn both ways: Charles quietly resentful of Large's wheeler-dealing and success with long-cherished Sophie, but at the same time culpably caught up in his slipstream; Large is contemptuous of the social system that constrained him as a child, but desperate to procure his own admission ticket, while graciously acknowledging an inbred unsuitability. "I wouldn't want my daughter shacking up with the likes of me," he semi-shrewdly remarks.
What undermines it is not simply the blatancy of the symbolism, or the conversations in which everyone makes their part in the novel's psychological framing just a shade too clear, but a kind of procedural elephantiasis. Scene after scene rambles on long after the crucial point has been reached, dinner menus are painstakingly reproduced, drunken braggadocio punctiliously set down, and Large is allowed whole pages to remember the boxing heroes of his childhood.
This is a pity, as Binding's most interesting character – Charles – is the least well-explored. Chronically detached, apart from a run-around with lustful but born-again Katie from the care home, capable of wild, spontaneous outbursts and passionate declarations, silently plotting his own revenge, he deserves a more active role in the proceedings than Binding can find for him. Rather like Large's harangues to the captive audience of the Friday-night wine bar, The Champion ends up outstaying its welcome.
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