Sunset boulevards

Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99

Neville "Bunt" Mullard is the proprietor of Imperial Stitching in Hong Kong, a tidy business specialising in the manufacture of elaborate badges for the breast pockets of British club blazers. Bunt (short for Baby Bunting) is 43 but lives with his mother in a house called Albion Cottage. He drives a 1958 Rover and listens to the news on an ancient Roberts Radio. The stuff of Bunt's daily life is made in Britain, built to last, but with the imminent handover of the colony to China, the durability of all things British is ironically beside the point. Paul Theroux is not a man to stint the signifiers. His latest novel, Kowloon Tong, can at times resemble a piece of Baroque statuary, so heavily encrusted with allegory that the subject seems to droop under the weight.

Theroux has rejected a panoramic vision of Hong Kong in its last days of empire for a straightforward domestic narrative. Bunt and his mother, Betty, are approached by the sinister Mr Hung, a representative of the Chinese army who wants to buy the auspiciously sited Imperial Stitching building. Bunt at first refuses to take the "Chinky-Chonk" seriously, but it becomes clear that Mr Hung's "offer" is more in the nature of a requisition.

Blustering and bewildered, Bunt serves as a kind of expat everyman: "When had the subject peoples of the British empire ever been anything but riddles? The Chinese were a supreme and slitty example of that. They were always out of focus, and the nearer you got to them the harder they were to see." By the time Bunt adjusts his focus to the new reality, the game is up.

An habitue of Kowloon's "blue bars", Bunt fails to find relief in sex. "Sex was a balancing act that always ended in failure, a fall, a sense of having slipped and been inattentive; of not knowing how to explain it. You refused to remember it, and when you tried again the failure was repeated."

Such attentive articulation of complex emotion marks Theroux as a writer at the height of his powers, and makes the reader all the more impatient with the slapdash characterisation in the bulk of the novel. Mr Hung is given one brilliantly paced scene explaining the esoteric pleasures of Chinese cuisine: "'This is delicious because it has been strung up' he said. 'You know how? Some string - tie it'. He made deft throttling and knotting gestures with his fingers, 'Truss it well and hang it for days. Let it air dry. Just dangle there.'" The rest of the time, however, Hung is your standard inscrutable, straight from the files of Charlie Chan.

Similarly, Betty Mullard with her slipping dentures and racist remarks is a grand guignol horror, a cross between Maggie Thatcher and Giles's Grandma. Nuances of speech are lovingly observed, but occasionally jar. The racism and vulgarity of the expats are surely best left unembellished. And when was the last time a doughty matron reached for her "gamp" when the weather turned nasty?

Unsurprisingly, some of the best passages of Kowloon Tong are Theroux's evocation of atmosphere. Long after the book is finished, the taste of Hong Kong - the gritty air and bus fumes, the stewed steam of the mottled sea-water sloshing against the pier, the foul dust from the land reclamation - is vivid in the reader's mouth. Patchily accomplished, but always readable, Kowloon Tong hovers between realism and satire. If it is realism, the characters are too gross. If it is satire, the story is too small. The problem - not perhaps such a big one - is a problem of scale.

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