The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright

An art crime hastens the meltdown of a wealthy family. D J Taylor enjoys the latest dispatch from Cartwrightland

Compliments first. Justin Cartwright's new novel, the eighth to which he cares to set his name (Freedom From the Wolves and other early stuff have mysteriously vanished from the "By the same author" page) is a storming piece of work, the equal of anything published on this side of the Atlantic this year, and a cert for the forthcoming Man Booker longlist. With these encomia out of the way, let us go on to examine certain other matters relating to the strikingly idiosyncratic angle on the world first pushed into view in Interior (1988) and biennially revised and redefined these past 16 years.

At the heart of practically all Justin Cartwright's fiction lies a single, solitary and predominantly male sensibility. The man in question is not usually very young, but neither is he generally very old. Silently oppressing him is the thought that he has seen better times: not necessarily materially - for most of Cartwright's protagonists are decently well-heeled - but morally. The world is deteriorating and he is deteriorating with it. Worse, there is blame attached. The world has failed him, but, albeit in mundane and trivial ways, he has helped it to fail. The only solidarity, in a world characterised by ruinous personal detachment, can be found in its sense of communal slide.

You get the impression that The Promise of Happiness is intended as a bit of a departure. Its focus is an actual family rather than its disintegrating fragments, a marriage (or rather two marriages) rather than a custody battle. There is not a mention of Africa, hitherto Cartwright's locus classicus; symbolically exotic fauna (the escaped lion in Look at it This Way, the baboon and the bees in White Lightning) are conspicuous only by their absence. Still, though, this is a novel about decline and desuetude. Charles Judd, its paterfamilias, is "experiencing the pain of being one of those Englishmen who knows he is out of time". As for his family, the sudden advent of crisis, two years before the story begins, has demonstrated that "they are minor people, somewhat adrift in time."

There are five Judds, of varying degrees of guile and resourcefulness. Sixty-eight-year-old Charles is an ex-accountant, embittered by the City chicanery that saw him deposed from his senior partnership; his wife sits and copes in their Cornish bolt-hole, arranges the church flowers and botches her attempts on mackerel à la Stein while canvassing "the need to have a spiritual dimension in one's life". Likeable, 28-year-old Charlie is a dotcom entrepreneur poised to sell his mail-order sock business to the Germans for several million pounds; 23-year-old Sophie the coke-sniffing mistress of an advertising film-man twice her age. All of them are drawn further into the familial web by the fate of Charles's pride and joy, elder sister Juliet, an art historian now reaching the end of a two-year stretch in an upstate New York penitentiary for her supposed involvement in the theft of a stained-glass Tiffany window from a Flatbush cemetery.

There follows an immensely well-conducted drama of emotional crack-up, disillusion and readjustment, all gathered up in the convenient knot provided by Charlie's meticulously planned marriage to sultry Peruvian Ana, whose shifty ambassadorial dad offers one of the novel's sharpest cameos. Running alongside it, though, is another entirely characteristic despatch from the Cartwright front line. As ever, what is really being conducted here is an argument with a certain kind of Englishness, simultaneously an elegy for a certain kind of behaviour and an exposure of that behaviour's fatal shortcomings. Significantly, the Judds' Cornish home is a stone's throw from Betjeman's grave. Juliet reflects on her dislike of Betjeman's empressment into the "code" of phoney native traditionalism. As ever, there is a text bumping along in the rear, in this case Bernard Williams' Truth and Truthfulness, on which the ever-more erratic Charlie lugubriously broods, and several thinly disguised retreads from previous novels, notably advertising guru Dan who, although a decade older, has a wonderful time reprising the role of cockney wide boy Mike in Look at it This Way.

And then there is the familiar Cartwright didacticism, that trademark compulsion to instruct, classify and conceptualise - "American landscape is dynamic"; "Tears come in many forms"; "White towelling is luxurious" (What about green towelling then? Doesn't that cut the mustard?) "Stained glass windows have a characteristic that sets them apart" - run close by an almost Amisian vigilance for modern street life: body-pierced love-birds on the Tube, those young people who preface every sentence with the word "like" and favour heavy metal bands with names like Napalm (in fact Cartwright's radar has gone a touch askew here - I think the ensemble to which he refers is Napalm Death). Occasionally descending into sheer reportage, these observations are nearly always redeemed by the tenacity of the prose style: Daphne, remembering a summons to attend Sophie in the wake of an overdose, muses on the "carrion foulness" of the scene; Charlie, disgusted by the interlocked be-metalled tongues on the Tube, recalls the magnets of schooldays.

The Promise of Happiness ends, as it could hardly fail to do, on an ambiguous note: certain issues sorted; others unresolved or quietly limping towards some dimly glimpsed future precipice. There is a strong suspicion that all this territory may be ripe for revisitation some years hence.

As for what the novel is, in its most reductive sense, "about", a brief list might run:

1 Art has no redemptive power

2 We are small people in a world run by brutal giants

3 Funny things, fate and personal destiny

4 Sexual desire can really mess you up.

No surprises there then. Such is the pull of Cartwright's narrative, the curious expertise that he brings to so many parts of human behaviour, the sense of authority, that the reader is eternally seduced. No doubt about it: white towelling is luxurious.

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