Return of the native

Bryan Cheyette hails a ping-pong champion from North Manchester who can match the best shots of Charles Dickens and Philip Roth; The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99, 384pp

FOR A comic novelist - a unique blend of Kingsley Amis, Tom Sharpe and Philip Roth - Howard Jacobson has always been too serious for his own good. When pressed endlessly to replicate Coming from Behind and Peeping Tom, his first two liberating and scabrous novels, he instead skipped off to Australia and produced the more restrained Redback. Just to show how gravely he took his role as a funny man, he composed a book about comedy and recreated the story of Cain and Abel to boot. Woe betide those who thought funniness trivial.

His last novel, No More Mister Nice Guy, signalled a return to the misanthropy and rude energy of his early work. But because this was a blokish book to end all bloke books, it was stuck in a single, crisis- ridden consciousness. This more mature novel has the sustained exuberance and passion of his youthful writing but within an epic (or, to be precise, mock-epic) scope. With typical Jacobsonian perversity, he has given the subject of table tennis (or, to be precise, ping-pong) the full treatment. And, to compound his perversity, he has gone back to the 1950s Manchester of his youth and a Jewish ping-pong club.

Much of Jacobson's contrariness arises from the fact that he is a no- holds-barred "secular" Jew (unusual in England but not the US). He is not a "Jewish writer" as Graham Greene is a "Catholic writer" but, more accurately, an "anti-gentilist". His Jewishness, in other words, confirms his comic marginality. The Great Walzer is shot through with Yiddishisms as Jacobson wishes to restore to the culture this most invisible of languages. His subject is, so to speak, the Yiddish of sports: an inherently absurd game. As Oliver Walzer, his anti-hero, puts it: "ping-pong is airless and cramped and repetitive and self-absorbed, and so was I".

On one level, this is a familiar fiction. A coming-of-age novel, it traces Oliver's eccentric and self-defeating rites of passage. Jacobson has done for North Manchester adolescence what Dickens did for orphanhood in Victorian London. The Great Walzer occupies a strange Dickensian nether-land, both real and grotesque. Jacobson's human grotesques congregate around Akiva Social Club, full of nerdish no-hopers such as Twink Starr and Aishky Mistofsky. With bizarre irony, hundreds of similar schlemiels finally assemble with Oliver at Cambridge University.

Oliver Walzer mixes what he thinks of as grandiosity with "existential bashfulness", or ping-pong virtuosity with world-championship skulking. Not for nothing did he learn his ping-pong skills by using a Collins Classic edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This doubleness, internal and external, drives the novel and, for an achingly funny book, gives it an astonishing emotional depth. The tragi-comic tone is set by the gap between Oliver's childhood perceptions of his own mightiness and a plaintive adult voice that knows too well the limits of his pretensions.

Surrounded by matriarchs, Oliver takes refuge in marathon bouts of masturbation. He is finally dragged into the mature world of "head-jockeying" females by his beautifully realised father. Always melancholic, Oliver is forever worried about the worth of his own life. This results in a series of disastrous relationships based on masochistic longings. But, after leaving his children, he is never quite sure whether his own grand unimportance amounts to a hill of beans.

The Mighty Walzer is an amazing achievement because it infuses everyday experiences with a linguistic rhapsody - a form of Mancunian jazz or Yiddish jive - rare outside the great US tradition of Jewish writing. Jacobson fills his work with "viral swag" as Oliver's big-hearted father is a trader in "tsatskes" (or trivialities). There are few novelists today who can imbue the trifles of life with such poetry, In going back to his own immigrant milieu, Jacobson has acknowledged the richness of his history as an outsider. By turning his past into fiction of the highest order, he has shown that those once excluded from English culture are now its custodians.

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