Satanic reverses

Book:THE BLACK ALBUM by Hanif Kureishi, Faber £14.99
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The Independent Culture
HANIF KUREISHI has written another book about a young Asian coming of age in London, about social, sexual and cultural awakening amid the mongrel blare and dirt of the capital. You can spot the same semi-autobiographical features of its protagonist, Shahid Hasan, in The Buddha Of Suburbia or Sammy and Rosie Get Laid: lust for life, status confusion, troublesome relations - even the same tangly long hair.

Kureishi's critics will be waiting. Why does he always write about the same things? Why is his work so dirty? Why is he so relentlessly cosmopolitan? (Norman Stone once called My Beautiful Laundrette "a GLC film".) Even: isn't he too old - 40 - to write about Punk and (in this book) raves, about young people?

But such accusations assume Kureishi chooses his "minority" subjects purely for effect, rather than from personal experience. In The Black Album's multicultural muddle Kureishi sees London as a compost heap, damp and decaying but alive with a ferment of possibilities. Shahid comes to the city in 1989 to study in a vandalised college and live in a bedsit on the littered grey front-line of the Kilburn High Road, but he soon learns to love it. He scoffs real Indian food and buys rare Prince records for an ill-defined course on postmodernism. The lecturer is a woman in black called Deedee Osgood, older, white, and commandingly well-read. Shahid falls in love.

Wide open to experience, he picks up other new friends: Riaz, a Muslim activist skinny as Gandhi, and his vast, volatile henchman Chad. They offer him a righteous sense of identity, and Shahid is put to work for the cause, typing up Riaz's religious writings and guarding harassed Asian families on racist estates. Then there is the lure of Deedee, diluting his moral certainty, draining him in bed; soon Shahid assumes the thrilled- but-confused state of the characteristic Kureishi hero.

Others start to tug him too: his materialistic family, eager for Shahid to help run their travel agencies, his gangster brother Chili, with his Paul Smith shirts and promises of illicit wealth, even Deedee's estranged husband Brownlow, an old Marxist with a stutter that worsens as each communist regime falls. Kureishi's characterisation is funny, but he doesn't settle for caricature. Unlike latter-day Martin Amis, he likes his city's inhabitants - even a drug dealer called Strapper is sad under his street patter - and lets them develop. Brownlow's voice comes back when he's agitating, and it's fruity as a colonial official's.

Kureishi's writing is quick, not too sophisticated - television nous showing in its frame of dialogue, hung here and there with a vivid descriptive paragraph, like a framing shot. The scenes at clubs and raves - much touted by his publishers and critical pigeonholers - are the book's least effective. "The electronic beats went like a jackhammer," he writes stiffly, rather like an Oldie correspondent. His strength is more traditional, in a Dickensian weaving of people and plots, as the competing influences in Shahid's orbit start to collide.

The mutual irritation between Deedee and the Muslim militants becomes open confrontation as she condemns the fatwah against Salman Rushdie. Old creditors start to close in on Chili and he has to hide in Shahid's room. Worst of all, Shahid can't resist rewriting Riaz's tract - as an erotic epic - and is found out, blasphemous as Rushdie. His easy wandering becomes freefalling panic as Chad, with a machete, starts hunting.

Yet, as Shahid's rite of passage accelerates into a cross-London thriller, Kureishi undercuts it with farce. Riaz's burning of The Satanic Verses at the college gates is cheekily paralleled by the dis- covery of a sacred aubergine, lines of the Koran supposedly visible on its flesh, in a North London semi. This humour has a rationale beyond Kur-eishi's love of Carry On films: all certainties fail, he concludes - "there had to be innumerable ways of being in the world". And London, he implies, is as good a place at dealing with this mess as any. Norman Stone might yet learn to like him.