Wednesday's Book: Cocaine: a novel by Phil Strongman

Sometimes, contrary to the old saying, you can tell a book by its cover. This one is desperate to be picked up. Bright citrus green with its catchy title emblazoned twice on the front, in 3D silver and eye-burn neon white, Cocaine is taking no chances with passing trade. Anybody lured to look more closely is immediately greeted with never-mind- the-quality-feel-the-width assurances of its absolute verisimilitude. "Fiction that is fact" blurbs a senior bod from the NME; "a rocket-fuelled blast of contempo music-biz reality," reports the American chronicler of excessive behaviour, Jerry Stahl: "put down the mirror, unroll your dollar bills and buy this book!"

Well, borrow a copy, maybe, and don't imagine that the paper packet you hold in your hands is cut with much of that truth stuff. Phil Strongman's first novel is a deeply old-fashioned tale of "corruption" in the British music business which recounts the to-ing and fro-ing of a freelance journalist, the economically named Pete, as he patrols the clubs and bars of Soho and Camden in search of sex with a drug dealer's girlfriend and some story about a Brit-pop band who bribed their way to stardom through massive handouts of free cocaine.

Pete, for all his insider knowledge about the villainous nature of the business, is a simple, almost innocent soul. He believes in a pop world where everything is manipulated by evil-hearted Mr Bigs who hate music and despise the kids who buy it. Talent means less than nothing, the charts are all rigged, reviews are purchased according to an astonishingly generous drug tariff with added holiday bonuses for full-page features. Those who might stand up against this disgraceful regime are too drunk, stoned or busy polishing their antique street slang ("diamond geezer" "natch", etc) to care.

The quaintest of Pete's many delusions concerns the power of journalists to affect the outcome of the heinous schemes he describes. In his version of the 1990s, the printed word - and in particular his proposed "scoop" about the Scallies - retains a pole position it started to lose in the real world about 20 years ago. In a key scene, Pete interviews a record company man who obligingly confirms all of his suspicions about the industry's malpractices and helpfully remarks that "it's hard to overestimate the power of the music weeklies".

For Strongman, himself a former music journalist, this proposition is as irresistible as the notion that hacks still spend their lives being plied with free narcotics. Anybody currently considering a career in music journalism should treat both with extreme scepticism.

For all its silliness, Cocaine is an easy read, well stocked with pubbish one-liners, and those who know little about modern pop and the drug culture which hangs off it may well find its relentless, shop-bought cynicism mildly entertaining. As its gaudy cover warns you though, this book is directly aimed at the non-book-buying, powder-conscious public who throng its pages. They will find it heavy going.

Cocaine is published by Abacus at pounds 9.99

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