Summer Things by Joseph Connolly Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99; The anarchic ocean

A rocky English seaside farce gets some stick from D J Taylor
Joseph Connolly's fourth novel opens in a

London estate agency in the midst of

some enthusiastic oral sex. "Lick me," begs Norman the timorous clerk as the proprietor's daughter scurries beneath his desk, only to see her - happily unsuspecting - father materialise before him. The action then cuts to a high-pitched (as in conversation) suburban dinner party, at which the bosomy hostess enquires of her 15-year-old neighbour which part of Brittany exactly was it that he visited last year. "Breast," ripostes pop-eyed Colin. "Lovely."

As you will have surmised, Summer Things is an example of that decayed and justly maligned sub-genre, the modern English comic novel. Kingsley Amis and Tom Sharpe are mentioned on the jacket. Within lurks, or rather screeches, a high-octane car chase around and into the usual crash barriers of adultery, class and people behaving badly, with vehicular access by way of what we did on our holidays.

Elizabeth Street fancies an expensive hotel at an English seaside resort. Estate agent hubby Howard is more interested in the 16-year-old male object of his affections, even more so when he discovers that a single-mother chum plus caterwauling baby are set to join them in the suite. Meanwhile, bankrupt Brian from next door and his desperately emulous wife are having to put up in a caravan, while young mistress Street has dragged Norman off for a humiliating week in Chicago, unwittingly subsidised by her dad, whose business the love-struck Norm has been sedulously defrauding to placate his inamorata.

Swelled by several other unlovely creations, the cast embarks on the customary round of misunderstandings and moral lapses endemic to this kind of entertainment. They have sex. They talk, or rather shout, at one another in italics. Unfailingly, they get the wrong end of the stick. A particularly rib-tickling moment comes when an insanely jealous husband named John imagines that his wife is confessing adultery with a man who has done nothing more than offer her a mint. "But I didn't put it in my mouth," Lulu remonstrates. "I hate the taste." Reader, I fell off my chair.

Intermittently, sincerity - or something approximating to it - rears its head in a brute epigram or two. "That's not love, John," Lulu maintains, of her husband's pitiless surveillance techniques. "It's my sort of love," he grimly replies, "the only sort of love I have to give you." Actually I did laugh at that bit, but probably not for the reason the author intended. A certain amount of interest can be found in the possible implications of Connolly's character drawing. The people in Summer Things tend to be either venal braggarts or sad cases (indigent Brian, who collects manhole covers and rewrites his suicide note annually, is much the most sympathetic). However, a faint hope of mass role-reversal is dashed by the circularity of the denouement.

Oddly, but typically of this type of book, there is no humour - just unrelenting savagery aimed at immobile targets. Now and again Connolly's overcooked balefulness raises a smile. About foreign holidays: "And on the last day you haggle your way through markets in currency you don't understand with people you deeply distrust for garbage too dreadful to live with - and then solemnly agree over dinner that truly here is heaven and the thought of ever leaving is breaking your heart." But for all kinds of reasons, this is one of the saddest novels I've read in ages.