The way you do

THIS IS IT by Joseph Connolly, Faber pounds 8.99

ERIC PIZER lies twisted and barely conscious in a Hampstead street, the double-decker that has just smacked into him trundling into the distance. "And yet this, he somehow felt, was just the beginning; oh God, he simply knew that this was just the bloody start."

For the ensuing 300 racy, relentless pages, a torrent of complications, indignities and physical agonies (and ecstasies) are rained down on Eric, as if he's in an episode of Fawlty Towers co-plotted by Martin Amis. Hobbling along on crutches, he has to find enough money to pay off Slingsby, a blackmailer who knows the Krays - and knows his secrets. For Eric is trussed up in a web of deceit. He spends his weekdays as a landlord and inadvertent pimp in London with his girlfriend Fiona, a clumsy, shopaholic vamp, and weekends with his ineffectual wife Bunty, who believes he works in publishing. Both women think he is writing a novel. And he is: so far he has completed 15 words. He also has to juggle his troubled friends, Jack and Penny, their obsessive teenage daughter, Helen, and two builders who are wreaking the same havoc on his house as the other characters are on his mind and body. "Oh Christ, it was all too ghastly even to think about."

Joseph Connolly's first novel, Poor Souls, was acclaimed, with the reservation that it was hard to sympathise with characters invested with no redeeming features whatsoever. The same goes for This Is It, only more so. It's sadistically enjoyable as a far-fetched farce, and its story indulges a fair array of male sexual fantasies, but the reader is left wondering why Connolly should have expected us to be interested in these shabby hustlers in the first place.

It's never quite explained how Eric has been able to set up and maintain separate lives and households in two different towns; it's just assumed to be another of those niggles that besets us all in this day and age. There are poignant moments, and a couple of incongruous dabs of political comment: Eric can't sit down in a hospital waiting room because "all the chairs are being maintained". Jack is ambushed by negative equity and redundancy. But of all the people these Nineties problems have affected, Penny, Bunty, Fiona and Co seem least deserving of our concern. If you find yourself reading on, it's because you wonder how on earth Connolly will be able to steer the lives of these human disasters into anything like a tranquil conclusion.

The intricate plotting is marred by some unconvincingly lucky breaks: the sudden unexplained death of one of the characters, the towering stupidity of one - make that most - of the others. And the supporting characters are caricatures Connolly doesn't even try to render believable.

What he concentrates on is a beady eye for the niceties of their behaviour ("She kissed air just to the left and right of Gillian's face") and an acute ear for the footling imprecisions and qualifications of their dialogue: "I simply said that Gillian said - What did she say? That he had a, Eric had a - oh, I don't know what she said, but it was all about the little boy lost, sort of thing."

This observation is hollowed by his contempt for his characters, and yet he doesn't actually satirise them. What in the end could he be satirising? Chattering Hampsteaders? Not unless they have lives as weirdly complex as those of Eric and friends. Shallow, amoral people in general? No, because Connolly doesn't offer us causes for or alternatives to their ways of life, he just presents them as if to say, as the characters themselves so often do: "This is it."

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