His mouth where the money is

HIGH LATITUDES by James Buchan, Harvill pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
MOST novels, good or bad, complex or straightforward, are no more than stories told; High Latitudes is an altogether different achievement. Imagine the analytical wit of Tom Wolfe combined with the economic reformism of Will Hutton in a narrative shot through with Dickensian sarcasm and the anarchic, picaresque energy of an 18th-century novel. Buchan's book goes even further, and opens new doors on the British malaise. Many of its characters are those who have inherited wealth but not purpose, and those who have "no interest in commerce, merely in riches ... riches they did not convert to use".

Jane Haddon, a woman in her late thirties, is neither of these. She has risen with steely ease to become the chief executive of Associated British Textiles and is determined to keep the company alive and manufacturing. She astounds her shareholders by wanting to provide employment. Prior to this incarnation, she flirted with marriage to an earl, heroin addiction and most of the men who have subsequently employed her. Now that she has the control and isolation which power brings, she finds the result is loneliness, confusion and the enmity of others.

The novel flits backwards and forwards through time with giddy control, but at its core is Jane's fight to keep open a never-profitable underwear factory at Motherwell. Arrayed against her are the junk-bond dealers, the asset-strippers who want only to sell and take quick profit. Jane, whose own parents worked at the factory, is determined to find a refinancing package that will keep it open. Climbing on a chair in the basement canteen, she asks the staff to take a 20 per cent pay cut in return for share options which will ultimately bring them everything they have forfeited and more. The vote to strike is unanimous.

Snapping at Jane's heels, meanwhile, are a love-lorn investment banker who is half-Nelsoned into floating the share offer, a libidinous revolutionary communist who orchestrates the strike, a member's agent at Lloyds determined to get out before asbestos claims catch up with the market and Johnny Bellarmine, her likeable ex-husband. He's an Eton-ruined, would-be socialist earl who is frog-marched into running the Jockey Club and investing everything at Lloyds. When he loses it all, he is relieved at last to face a challenge in his life.

With such a cast list, the plot might begin to smack of the banality of a big-screen blockbuster, but sharply controlled prose, oddly effective pacing and deep originality of attitude make it something other. Buchan sets out to dissect the "last flowers of long social traditions" - the Marxist as much as the Lloyds agent.

The latter is demolished in a single sentence: faced with a private collection of old masters, he sees "not paint but congealed money". A Lincoln's Inn solicitor is equally easily nailed: "behind a pose of sumptuous imbecility ... hid a mind both sharp and corrupt". But beneath the satire lies an authorial certainty that takes you to the heart of a character's unhappiness: Johnny knows that "money ... becomes for us the absolute purpose, replaces love or happiness or peace of mind and even what people used to call God."

In fact the author's presence pervades, pesters, lingers. "I don't know what happened next, I can't be everywhere," it teases. Or "She thought ... I'm not going to tell you what she thought." Whether this is the real Buchan or an interposing, recording angel barely matters. It is this abiding force, this looming intelligence which gives the book its scope and its magnetism.

Again and again, the author toys with real people and events, barely bothering to disguise them; there's Thomas Waldo Burke, the lazy junior minister who is besotted with Mrs Thatcher, an obsessive womaniser who "dreamed convulsively of the highest office". There's Reuben and Style plc, a dictatorial chain-store that dominates the underwear market. Or Jane's chairman, Lord Doncaster, who has grown rich on asset-stripping and leverage buy-outs, but now clings to horse- racing and women, calling her from drunken parties in his Park Avenue apartment, urging her to liquidate and take the cash.

But then Buchan will just as soon stand this near-caricature on its head and create a new, horrific reality. In the waters off Alaska, the banker from "S L Brimberg" finds himself wrestling a viciously terrified sea otter covered in oil from the "Exxon Bellarmine". Struggling in vain to save it from itself, he for once experiences at first hand the strength and intensity of nature's anger at man's easy despoliation.

High Latitudes is a novel which British fiction has long needed - a response to the moribund immorality of the last 15 years and a genuine attempt to "bridge the chasm between commerce and literature in our country".

Buchan understands money and the cold efficiency of its dictates. But he also cares enough to expose its reality, the poverty it creates in the social fabric, in the environment and in the soul.

! Julie Myerson's new novel, 'The Touch', will be published by Picador on 26 April.