The Making of Henry by Howard Jacobson

Of mice and mensch
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It's a guy thing, Howard Jacobson's work. No. It's a mensch thing. And an unusual one. In the canons of postmodern litcrit, the worst sin is to introduce an author into his own work, but Jacobson is in there already: the disputatious voice fuelled by testosterone and articulacy, the glaring intelligence. Unlike most novelists- of-manhood, Jacobson isn't trying on various versions of masculinity in these troubled times to see if there's one that fits, that he can get away with. He's already a man, having a look at the territory, examining the constructs, wondering how it all assembles itself and putting the righteous boot in when the opportunity presents itself.

Which it does. Here's Henry's dad, in this new novel, fire-eating at a children's party in a dodgy part of town: "The entire proletariat of Henry's reading and foreboding came out to look - missing persons, rent-evaders, men in hiding, IRA men, men with prices on their heads, dodgers, defaulters, defecators, escaped convicts, wife-beaters, spies, snoops, grasses, bigamists, bombers, whisky priests, welfare cheats, distillers of illicit hooch, contrabandists, drug dealers, inbreeders, squatters, illegal immigrants, under-age runaways, child-molesters, tower-block prostitutes and their pimps, men who slept with their mothers, neighbours who hadn't spoken since their blood feud first broke out in another country in another century, creatures not men, creatures with iron claws for hands, creatures with bullets for teeth, creatures who knew what they wanted, what they borrowed never returned, inexpugnable, shatterproof, immortal."

It's masterly writing: the language under tight control, the finely-calibrated descent from accurate observation into a fantastical horrified gullibility turning on the marvellous, purely Jacobsonian, phrase, "creatures not men".

Men and not-men is his perennial theme. What does it take? How can we tell? We should apologise? It is, after the powdered riot of false sensibility and its grim counterpart, the Bloke Book, a relief and a mitzvah.

It has been said (by teachers of screenwriting) that there are only three plots: 1) Boy Becomes Man; 2) Man Stares Death in the Face; and 3) A Stranger Comes to Town. As a literary theory, it has the authentic sandalwood whiff of balls about it. As a novelistic practice, it seems to work. Certainly, Jacobson's work fits in nicely. The Mighty Walzer? Boy Becomes Man. No More Mister Nice Guy? Boy Becomes Man. Who's Sorry Now? Boy Becomes Man and Stares Death in the Face. And now The Making of Henry: A Stranger Comes to Town. And Man Stares Death in the Face. And, of course, Boy Becomes Man.

As always, it's powerful, bang to rights, monstrously funny. The plot is basic enough: Henry, at 60, is inexplicably left the lease on a flat in St John's Wood. He leaves his grim rural Yorkshire fastness and comes to London. He meets a woman. He meets a man. Things come to pass.

Jacobson uses plot as a prospector uses stake-posts, as markers to denote his territory, which he wanders around, panning for gold. And finding it. A cemetery yew tree "sucks in the light". In a new-rich suburb, the gated houses "are all approximating to some idea of somewhere else or some other time. He can smell bad money. Gangster money. Football money. Opportunity knocks money."

Henry finds love. His friend's dog dies. He gets to the bottom (or does he?) of his father's secret life. He stares death in the face.

You don't read Jacobson to find out what happens next. You read him to find out what's said next. His disputatious truculence is not peevish but rabbinical, Talmudic, necessary. His narrative asides are central and crucial. His dead father - the paper-folding children's conjuror, thwarted by his wife from eating fire, crying Taugetz! (something between "whatever" and "nu, enough") - is a wonderful piece of invention.

But in conversations with his father's imagined ghost, and in disputations with himself, Henry resembles nothing so much as the ancient Egyptian painting of "A Man Disputing with his Ka": the god-borne alter ego who existed to be intellectually wrestled with. Jacobson argues as a shark swims: if it stops, he stops. Taugetz? You'd be a fool to even think it.

Michael Bywater's 'Lost Worlds' is due from Granta