Books: The odd bod of pulp and pub

Fancy an exuberant salmagundi with an art-school weirdo? Mat Coward knows just the chap
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The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag

by Robert Rankin

Doubleday, pounds 16.99

The book world's ruling class, considering itself in general too smart for cult fiction, recognises the existence of only one humourous fantasist at a time. Douglas Adams received the nod in the early 1980s, and it is currently permissible to find Terry Pratchett mildly amusing, provided one is careful to despise his readers. Robert Rankin, author of 17 deeply strange novels, has yet to receive his Backstage Pass; of course, having his own fan club, members of which are entitled to "a coveted Sproutlore badge", probably doesn't help.

Rankin is, frankly, an art-school weirdo. His books are not affectionate pastiches or clever exercises in genre-bending. To read two or three Rankins is to become convinced that he doesn't write like this because he is methodically exploiting a niche in the market; he writes like this because the tablets aren't working.

His plots, such as they are, do not submit gracefully to precis. They usually concern reluctant heroes saving the world from the forces of evil. In Voodoo Handbag, easily his best-written work to date, the evil is supplied by Necrosoft, a monopolistic computer company.

But nobody reads Rankin for the plot. We read him for his exuberant salmagundi of old jokes, myths urban and otherwise, catchphrases, liberatingly crazy ideas, running gags, recurring characters and locations, unreliable autobiographical anecdotes, and not forgetting the now legendary "load of old toot".

He wears his influences on his sleeve: Forteanism, absurdism, conspiracy theory, Spike Milligan and Flann O'Brien, and the entire span of pop, pulp and pub culture. His books are constructed rather like poems or song lyrics, strong on rhythm, echo, cadence and cascade (oh no, wait a minute - that's an old King Crimson track).

His approach is picaresque, yet curiously driven. He's capable of lacing his fun with genuinely chilling episodes and insights. As with any great humorist, you can never be entirely sure which bits he himself thinks are funny and which he thinks are frightening.

The juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic in Rankin's universe is subtle and skilful. Everything and everyone he creates is skew-whiff; he is happy to employ a cliche but only after he's duffed it up a bit. His principal characters are ostensibly everyman types, who juggle the demanding role of rescuing humanity with their other priorities: winning darts tournaments and tending allotments. But in Rankin, as in life, ordinariness is invariably illusory.

He is an author best read in large doses. His impressively individual style means that he becomes funnier the more you read him. Rankin is so loved by his audience because, even more than Pratchett, he writes as one of us - a reader, a fan; the self-styled "teller of tall tales", unimpressed by conventional hierarchies of significance and triviality, at his happiest tipsy in the snug, sharing a pocketful of weird odds and sods with a bunch of like-minded eclectics.

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