Tuesday's Book: After Bathing at Baxter's by DJ Taylor

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A promising sprinter blows his big chance. A New York pornographer daydreams about holidays in an England he knows only from brochures. An insurance salesman is obsessed by planes but he is afraid of flying and scared of escaping his bulkily humdrum life.

Most of the 18 stories in this collection depict failures and evasions, opportunities spurned and chances missed. Perhaps it is this focus on dreams that don't come true that accounts for the settings of many of the tales - down-at-heel, small-town, Mid-west or redneck America. That the majority of the book's stories are set in Raymond Carver country comes as a real surprise, for DJ Taylor is a thoroughly English writer, with a passion for the likes of Thackeray and Dickens, and a pride in his native Norfolk matched only by Radio Norwich's very own Alan Partridge.

There are a few occasions when Taylor's Americana doesn't quite convince - notably in the references to TV series and films that, it just so happens, have also been popular on this side of the Atlantic - but, for the most part, the diners and motels and Larrys and Ellas play their authentic parts. The Midwest setting is used most effectively in "Flights", the longest and best story, which describes the heart-rendingly inept life of Dorfman, the plane-obsessed salesman.

Dorfman's habit of hanging around the local airport, his hobby of constructing Airfix models of World War II fighter planes, his aromatherapy-addicted wife, the oldster he admires but still wouldn't mind exploiting, the tinily gorgeous Filipina stewardess who, you just know, is going to fleece Dorfman and leave him in the lurch ... each detail contributes to a cringingly effective portrait of a man destined for horrible disappointment. "Flights" was a story that I didn't read so much as peek at through my fingers.

It is a tribute to Taylor's inventiveness and skill that his resolute devotion to the theme of failure hasn't resulted in a thoroughly depressing compilation of tales of the expected. In fact, the only inevitable features of this collection are the author's own stylistic tics (most noticeably a fondness for ending his stories with wistful epiphanies that demand two adjectives and his continuing attachment to the adjective "queer"), because After Bathing at Baxter's displays an admirable range, finding loss and rejection everywhere from the repressive gentility of Cromer to the decadence and sham of Graceland. Tics apart, Taylor is capable of a splendid turn of phrase - as when he describes an adolescent's face "so lavishly pitted with acne that the scars might have come from some secret society initiation rite".

The American landscapes in this fine collection are a bit of a turn-up, but the quality of Taylor's writing certainly comes as no surprise.

Vintage, pounds 6.99

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