The White Stuff, by Simon Armitage

Seeds of hope and disappointment

Abbie, at 40, desperately wants a child. Felix lends his support because of Abbie's utter misery. Felix's devotion is not in doubt, but, left to himself, conception might not be uppermost in his thinking. Abbie is aware of this and sees it as part of their problem. Felix finds it hard, and thinks it wrong, to dissemble. He gamely undertakes a visualisation exercise at a counselling session, but while Abbie is comforted by meeting her recently miscarried baby on the imaginary island, Felix has an encounter of such spectacular irrelevance that I lay on the floor and howled with laughter.

The laconic, unshockable humour of Armitage's poems and his first novel Little Green Man persists through most of The White Stuff. Felix's wry efforts to keep the faith as a social worker produces a grimly funny episode in a council house kitchen where the wall between the lavatory and the cooker has mysteriously vanished and someone long ago let a bag of cement get stuck to the tabletop. The bag is now covered in telephone numbers. Beyond the comic horror, Armitage is nudging at the idea that people can't or won't be told who to be, even if David Blunkett turns up to fine them in person (a film of that occasion might prove popular). Armitage follows up with a superb set-piece involving an escaped bull watched by a vast, gleefully terrified crowd on a field overlooked by the Social Services department. Deprived of their entertainment, the crowd set about bricking in the windows of their alleged helpers.

There may nothing to be done, but Felix gets on and does it. Insofar as society has glue, he provides it - nailing the culprit in a child abuse case on the estate and at the same time pursuing the identity of the adopted Abbie's birth mother. His good works may count for little, though, since the prospect of producing a jar of sperm leaves him impotent and obliged to call in his friend and neighbour Jed to supply the necessary. Felix wants Jed to realise this without being told: needless to say, it's a long job.

Throughout most of the book, there is a freezing sense of time's indifferent passage. Here comes middle age, and what comes after that? It may be this desolate prospect that destabilises the tone of the final stages of The White Stuff, breaking the connection with such unblinking predecessors as David Storey and Alan Sillitoe. The trail of Abbie's ancestry leads her to the home town of her adoptive parents in Norfolk, there to discover a wise earth mother who can supply her with both history and the future in such glutinously improbable detail that it's surprising she's not played by Whoopi Goldberg. It seems out of character for Armitage to entertain such a degree of wish-fulfilment. Yet at the close he hauls the book back towards its original seriousness by showing us the ever-helpful Felix as an impotent Joseph-figure, left to fix the fairy lights before the worshippers gather at the modern-day crib.

Armitage writes well enough not to need to display it. The cumulative power of his observations is very impressive, as is his succinct and frequently damning treatment of the facts of daily life. He has painful and truthful things to show about work, love, men, time and old age. If he can develop his female characters without sentimentality and do as The White Stuff often suggests he might - that is, deal more ambitiously with the history of his times - he might write a very good book indeed, supposing he's left alone to get on with it.

Sean O'Brien's most recent poetry collection, 'Cousin Coat', is published by Picador

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