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A week in books

Youth is a famously wasting asset. Every business on the planet yearns to filch the pounds or dollars from its jeans before the bloom fades and the direct-debits kick in. And the British book trade, once in thrall to leathery old literati, now courts the yoof vote with a smarmy relish that might make Humbert Humbert blanch. At a recent conference, the marketing director of Waterstone's scolded colleagues for their failure to exploit a captive market among students. He compared the appeal of six items of normal campus expenditure, each costing pounds 32: a pair of Levi 501s, three movie outings, 40 condoms, four lines of cocaine, two `high- quality' hangovers - and a textbook in biochemistry.

The book, he sagely argued, ignored the main interests of its market. No. Meanwhile, exclusive research for the Independent at the Academy of the Bleedin' Obvious has revealed that 99.5 per cent of students would rather spend the weekend in a hot-tub with Kate Winslet and/or Leonardo DiCaprio than attend an all-day seminar on neo-classical endogamous growth theory.

Alas, you come across this level of wisdom among the folk who hire new blood for fiction lists. It often seems that neophytes merely need to wave a post-1970 birth certificate and tout a manuscript spiked with the obligatory fix of soccer, sex and stimulants before a great cry of `Sorted!' goes up from the major British publishers. (By the time this appears, that should probably read `the major British publisher'.) Suits in offices forget that twentysomethings who want to read new novels will ipso facto despise the exploitation of their age and tastes. When it comes to being targeted as patsies of the latest trend, younger readers are - and always have been - Marxists tendance Groucho.

For that reason, Matt Thorne's bleak tale of a heroine who opts out of fashion and ambition, Tourist (Sceptre, pounds 10), deserves to thrive. Its publishers stress that Thorne is 23 and say that `only a person under a certain age' could write this book. Baloney. Self-sabotaging baloney, as well, given that Thorne defies this reduction of talent to biology by electing to use a female narrator (as Alan Warner did in Morvern Callar).

His Sarah Patton is a self-contained 27-year-old slacker who meanders between two tacky older lovers amid the dismal seaside tat of Weston-super- Mare. A sink of dysfunction, the town swarms with marginal types who know `it's easier to live in poverty when you've got a beach'. Sarah's threadbare idyll caves in when this ice maiden - a tourist in the land of passion - finds herself on the wrong end of a sexual sting. Amid a drizzle of chilly observations and mordant one-liners (`I'd rather someone fucked my boyfriend than used my toothbrush'), Thorne invites us to ask: how did she turn out this way?

As in much blank-generation fiction, a wobbly finger points at Mum and Dad, with their follies and betrayals. Here, Thorne's inexperience does show, as the errant parents scarcely come alive. Yet this is still a memorable debut that deftly portrays its frowsty setting as a correlative of emptiness within. I doubt if Cool Labour will be choosing Weston for its next spotless congress.