From the heyday of Hockney to the age of Emin, art-school mavericks have made waves in British culture that break far beyond the world of galleries and dealers. Since the 1950s, the art tribe has taught other fearless spirits – in pop, fiction or film – that the weary distinctions between "high" and "low" culture can fall down with a single well-aimed shove. Richard Milward, a 24-year-old graduate of Central St Martins college, belongs in this anti-tradition of fence-smashing provocateurs whose aesthetics mix trash and transcendence.
Milward's debut novel, Apples, won praise from Irvine Welsh for its sink-estate Garden of Eden peopled by temptation-prone teenagers. He is now at work on the screenplay – and in February, Faber & Faber publishes his second book, a novel whose profane but touching cocktail of anarchy and artistry will surely brand it the Trainspotting of modern Middlesborough.
Apart from a brief, nightmarish trip to London, Ten Storey Love Song mostly unfolds in and around a cosmetically renovated high-rise. Here, the wasted young painter Bobby struggles to pursue his outsider art, and to rekindle his passion for girlfriend Georgie in the face of endless drug-related distractions. His mates in Peach House, Johnnie and Ellen, struggle to keep their love alive as bad sex as well as substances and suspicions pull them apart. Elsewhere in the tower, the unsavoury truck driver Alan repels his neighbours as a sad – and maybe bad – loner but nurses secrets no one else can share. Not since Georges Perec's eccentric classic Life: A User's Manual has a block of flats given cult fiction such an engagingly offbeat home.
Comic, erotic, candid but charming, Ten Storey Love Song unspools over 280 pages in a single virtuoso paragraph. Milward gleefully slathers drugs, sex and rock'n'roll all over his canvas but a sort of innocence prevails. Repelled by the creepy London art and media scene, Bobby flees back to Middlesbrough and reflects that fame is all about "getting lots of initial success and then a slow decline into mediocrity and backlash and paranoia". He will speak for readers whose heads may be lost in creative space but whose feet remain happily stuck on planet Earth.