Successes with girls

This Is It by Joseph Connolly Faber, pounds 15.99; Nicholas Wroe finds Kingsley Amis alive and well and writing about Hampstead

In Joseph Connolly's second novel, the main character, a seedy landlord posing as a writer, is asked whether his much-vaunted book is "a Hampstead novel". The fact he hasn't actually written a novel doesn't prevent him from conceding that, "in many ways it might be". Equally This Is It in many ways might be. It is certainly set in Hampstead and maybe criminal extortion, prostitution, drug abuse and sado-masochistic sex are to today's chattering classes what stripped pine and holidays in the Dordogne were to the previous generation.

In Poor Souls, his debut published last year, Connolly emerged as an impressively observant stylist: something of a hybrid between Kingsley and Martin Amis, opening as a broadly straightforward comic piece and closing with a young girl being raped with a gun barrel in an alcoholic frenzy. In This Is It he has tended to stay more firmly in Kingsley territory, only periodically sliding into Martin scenes when involving gangsters, tarts and a cough-syrup addict called Vole.

This Is It opens with Eric Pizer, the bogus author and resident landlord of a block of bed-sits in Hampstead, being knocked down by a bus. It's just the beginning of his physical deterioration; he is regularly assaulted throughout the rest of the novel to cruel comic effect. His physical decline is matched by an increasingly precarious grasp on a personal life complicated by financial, logistical and structural problems - even his house starts to collapse.

Eric, like all the other characters as it turns out, has lots of secrets, most of them involving women. Decrepit, selfish and transparently duplicitous, Eric's habitual approach to women is to boast how he ``put her down with wit and concision (`Oh do fuck off, Fiona')". Yet a string of attractive, sexually inventive and sometimes even young, women make themselves available to him. Glorying in the astonishing powers of sexual attraction exercised by shabby, bookish, middle-aged men is becoming a Connolly trade mark. It could be seen as creepy, but taken in tandem with his wider assessment of women in This Is It, it can assume a more elevated meaning. The depiction of Helen, a teenage daughter of Eric's friend and therefore only reluctantly allowed to worship him, as, "not neurotic like most women are, but completely bloody asylum-standard mad", almost transforms one man's lechery into another man's homage.

But no amount of speculation as to Connolly's PC quotient alters the fact that he really can write. There is cringingly accurate dialogue, a morbid appreciation of downward mobility ("redundancy pay is the demob suit of the Nineties") and a robustly fantastic approach to characterisation. If he is at his best on modern manners - particularly in scenes involving food with some terrifying dinner parties and a fiasco in a restaurant - he also provides a convincingly funny and sad core to the motivations of his unsympathetic cast as they negotiate the half-lit world of middle- class penury.

The novel ends surprisingly neatly, although not neatly enough entirely to tie up all the foregoing mayhem. While this points to an increasing control over his vulgarly readable talent, it gives little notion of where Joseph Connolly will go from here. He has moved from unpublished novelist to what looks like a literary fixture in about a year.

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