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HEMINGWAY'S CHAIR by Michael Palin, Methuen £14.99
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The Independent Culture
MARTIN SPROALE is the kind of character Michael Palin tends to play. He's nice. An utter weed, niggled by self-doubt, still living with his mum in his mid-thirties, but a fundamentally decent chap all the same. But just as Palin's accountant in Monty Python wants to be a lion tamer, Martin imagines a place more thrilling than his own state of indecision.

By day, he is assistant post office manager in the humdrum coastal town of Theston, with a reliable bicycle and a clingy fiance; by night, he dreams of Ernest Hemingway. He has a roomful of Hemingway memorabilia and a headful of Hemingway trivia, but is unlikely ever to demonstrate the Old Brute's spirit - until two strangers hit town. One is Ruth Kohl, a young but worldly American academic, in England for some peace and quiet while she completes her thesis on, yes, Hemingway. She and Martin become friends, and she comes across the furniture of the title to add to his collection. The other newcomer is Nick Marshall, a Thatcherite whizzkid who takes over the managerial job which should rightfully have gone to Martin. Modernising the post office is the least of his nefarious schemes, and only a Hemingway hero can stop him.

Hemingway's Chair is Palin's debut novel - we know this because it says "A NOVEL" in large letters on the cover. It is published just a year after his debut play, The Weekend, opened in the West End to poor reviews: for all Palin's considerable experience on the big and small screens, theatre was a medium he hadn't quite mastered. The same, unfortunately, goes for the novel. Palin can hardly be compared with, say, Naomi Campbell - he's not tall enough for a start - but if Hemingway's Chair hadn't been written by a celebrity, it would not be heading so unerringly for the bestseller list.

Palin said at the time of The Weekend's production that he wished there were somewhere you could buy plots by the yard. If it does exist, and he's found it, he has made straight for the shelf marked Airport Novels. Don't expect the literary pretensions that the Julian Barnesy title suggests. You can map out most of the bed-hopping and backstabbing after reading the first couple of chapters.

Palin crosses the campaigning fervour of Ben Elton's Stark with the nostalgia prevalent in his own East of Ipswich and Ripping Yarns, and ends up with a comedy that is more bleak than black. Post Office privatisation is his bugbear, but his argument rests on having Martin step out of character and declare: "That's where you're wrong, Nick. People here like to see the regular faces, they like to see local people ... Lose that goodwill and we're done for."

The writing is mostly clear and quick, with a few sparkles along the way: a man with "one or two chins", for instance. But some of the jokes are so laboured they collapse from exhaustion, and the physical descriptions read like notes to a casting director: "Dark, olive skin (mother's side), hair black and thick, bunched back over her ears and desperately needing attention, eyes deep green and staring back at her with a disturbing intensity, nose narrow and rugged like a headland running down into the sea, mouth wide, lips thin, chin rather fine (father's side)." And there are still two lines to go on her neck, shoulders and breasts.

Nonetheless, Hemingway's Chair is a comfortable one, padded with the charm and humanity that typifies Palin's work. There is some deft daftness and a bumbling cast of eccentric locals. Things really start to get interesting towards the end, as we learn more about Martin's dead father, his rapport with Ruth, and the strength of his identification with Hemingway. As the psychology becomes deeper and murkier, it seems Palin is gaining courage along with his protagonist. But then, with an expanse of barely explored ground to go, he races for the finish. Suddenly it's all over, leaving some tantalising signs that an enjoyable read could have been a lot better.