The Crossroads, By Niccolo Ammanititrans Jonathan Hunt

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Niccolo Ammaniti has cranked up the volume for his blistering new novel. "'Wake up, wake up for fuck's sake!'" yells Cristiano Zena's father, Rino, before instructing his son to take his gun and go and shoot a neighbour's barking dog. By now the reader is pretty wide awake, and unlikely to doze off. We are back in Ammaniti's favourite territory, the forgotten, dusty suburbs of forgotten, dusty Italian towns, with a gallery of low-lifes that would put the wind up Jeremy Kyle.

Chief among these are Cristiano himself, a gormless teenage innocent, his father, a self-professed Nazi, and his father's friends: Danilo Aprea, a sad loser, and Quattro Formaggi, so nicknamed after his favourite pizza topping, a porn-obsessed lunatic who would still be locked up in a mental hospital had the Italian asylums not been abolished. (Since Ammaniti's father is a noted psychoanalyst, one imagines he's quite well versed in the Italian mental health system.)

Rino and his mates come up with the brilliant idea of robbing a cash dispenser, which will solve their financial problems at a stroke. To this end they first steal an expensive four-by-four, only to find themselves, in one seriously funny scene, interrogated by its satnav system. The car is duly abandoned in favour of a tractor, and the trio set to work. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, of course. Events build in a gruesome crescendo to a climax of blood-drenched horror that Ammaniti describes with rather unsavoury relish. The narrative is awash with body-fluids: spit, bile, vomit, diarrhoea and a good few others. Cristiano and his acquaintances are dragged into the whirl of horror, and more or less terminally marked by it.

Equally, many minor characters, safe and middle-class, are utterly unaware of the squalid lives around them. I suspect this may be Ammaniti's point. The Crossroads is a rollickingly dark horror-comic, a gruelling piece of fun. Bearing in mind the subtle creepiness of Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared, one might ask where the nuance has gone. He's clearly had a whale of a time writing this, but one wonders whether he isn't, like Orson Welles, living his life backwards. Let's hope not, because at his best Ammaniti is a fearsomely gifted writer.

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