E is for Estuary as a son of Sam grows up

A Week in Books

I WOULD bet a jugful of tequila that next month's Ernest Hemingway centenary will stir a slew of parodies from jokers who think it a doddle to pick up Papa's famous cat-sat-on-the-mat style. Yet, whenever a true original gets too easy to mimic, it suggests some great experiment has run its course. With mature Hemingway, as with Samuel Beckett's fiction, the Modernist drive for less-is-more intensity bred a pared-down idiom that won its huge energy from the very limits that the language set itself.

Later, the depleted diction that linguists would call a "restricted code" worked best for young narrators - from Holden Caulfield to Paddy Clarke. Anthony Burgess, in A Clockwork Orange, and Russell Hoban, in Riddley Walker, added dystopian fantasy and DIY vocabulary to the mix. So this narrow byway of modern prose led to some wonderful works; but it did begin with Gertrude Stein in the 1900s. Surely a return to these tricks on the very eve of the millennium sounds precious? A pose is a pose is a pose.

That's roughly what came to mind when I first heard about Daren King's Boxy an Star (Abacus, pounds 9.99). This debut novel from a young Essex-born creative-writing graduate follows the trail of two druggy teens, the languid narrator Bole and his frisky girlfriend Star. Endlessly in quest of designer pills and cash to buy them, the pair belong to a future underclass of stoned losers: "The money made us get pills an the pills got rid of our money an the pills got rid of our brain."

At first glance, their misfortunes look not too crude, but too sophisticated - too aware of Beckett and Burgess in the background. But please do persevere; even if, like me, you have zero tolerance for trendy folk who (as Bole's posh hippie pal puts it) "transport Class A pharmaceuticals for a living". Boxy an Star is a total success: finely paced, wildly funny, deeply touching.

Of course, I relished the lovely Joyce-meets-Estuary coinages ("trouble monkey" for penis; "clobberdogs" for shoes). Subtler, and harder, is the inch-perfect comic timing that makes many scenes sound like some delirious encounter between P G Wodehouse and William S Burroughs. What matters most, though, is not this sly dexterity but the lovers' trip towards the best natural high of all: "Bein in love is like bein on telly all the time".

Boxy an Star delightfully revives a genre I had thought near-dead. It overflows with wit, tenderness and inspired mischief. And, in a week when some pedantic fossil ticked off public figures for "incorrect" speech, it proves that real writers always love the way the language grows.

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