Wilt in Nowhere, by Tom Sharpe

Back with venom after a creative block
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The Independent Culture

For a brief, alarming moment during the early pages of Wilt in Nowhere, it seems Tom Sharpe may have gone soft on us. Henry Wilt, back in action in this novel after an absence of 20 years, manages to wriggle out of a family visit to the home in Tennessee of Eva Wilt's Uncle Wally and Auntie Joan. As soon as his gargantuan wife and their sex-obsessed teenage quads are on their way, Wilt sets off on a rambling tour in search of the old England of pubs, tow-paths and canals.

For a brief, alarming moment during the early pages of Wilt in Nowhere, it seems Tom Sharpe may have gone soft on us. Henry Wilt, back in action in this novel after an absence of 20 years, manages to wriggle out of a family visit to the home in Tennessee of Eva Wilt's Uncle Wally and Auntie Joan. As soon as his gargantuan wife and their sex-obsessed teenage quads are on their way, Wilt sets off on a rambling tour in search of the old England of pubs, tow-paths and canals.

The walk continues gently and pleasantly, rather in the manner of the great Peter Tinniswood, for several paragraphs until, out of the blue, the first of a set of great farcical misadventures, propelled by coincidence, comes crashing on the scene. A storm gathers, Wilt is hit on the back of the head and falls into the pick-up truck of a yob on his way to burn down the house of a drunken paedophile masochist who is having an S&M affair with Ruthless Ruth, the ex-hooker wife of the shadow minister for social enhancement whose penchant is for rent boys and who - well, you get the picture. Eva Wilt, meanwhile, is under surveillance in America, suspected of drug-smuggling to the right-wing, war-loving, religious fundamentalist Uncle Wally.

Sharpe has confessed that one reason for a decade-long creative block was that he had "no poison in him to write". On the evidence here, he had no need to worry. A gleeful venom spits from every page with the author calling into the service of farce some unlikely components: child porn, a bucket containing a bloodied foetus carried by a doctor, not to mention a relentless obsession with the anal which culminates in one of the key comic set-pieces of the novel, a row over the issue of marital sodomy - broadcast across the county, thanks to the Wilt daughters - between the middle-aged Wally and Joan.

No one turns to Tom Sharpe for nuance, taste and sensitivity. In a sense, the only relevant question is whether the new novel is funny or not. I was left gasping by Wilt in Nowhere, but not in a good way. Sharpe's satire is at its best when its target is big enough to justify the sledgehammer brutality of his wit. Here, for all the incidental poison against hospitals, right-wing Americans and political correctness of one kind or another, the jokes feel effortful, the farce forced.

All the familiar plot elements of classic Sharpe fiction are in place - a fire, a cast of perverts, ferocious dogs biting people between the legs, a bang on the head leading to amnesia, and so on. For that reason, Wilt in Nowhere will remind his most devoted fans of past laughter. For the rest of us, it is a tougher read. The pedal of humour is pressed hard to the floor, but the engine is misfiring.

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