BOOK REVIEW / Into the wilderness and away from the cast list: 'The Gifting Programme' - Sam North: Secker & Warburg: 13.99

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YOU COULD have a mildly diverting time matching the names with the faces in Sam North's new novel, but it shouldn't detain you too long. For these are characters with bells on, pantomime players in small print.

Take the old man, for instance: Ambelin Sayers, financial magician, corporate soothsayer, ambling down his last days, doddery and dizzy with age. Then there are his long-lost 'friends': Wik Slavery, a short-fused New Yorker, tortured by self-doubt; Buddy Maze, a good- time Southern nobody; and Amie Moss, the old soak. She's the one who mothered Ambelin's illegitimate son (not that he knows about that) and now struggles with many things: the memory of what might have been; the antics of her teenage boy, precocious and mildly delinquent; the unwelcome attentions of his fellatable 'uncle'; and the demon booze.

That leaves Arthur Cinsaretti, Professor Sage Tinkler, TJ and Moon as sugar daddy, bent medic, difficult son and loyal hound. Such a loudly proclaimed cast list has surely not been arrived at by chance. North is too fastidious, too clever for that. The Gifting Programme is mannered, deliberate, fabulous in more ways than one. As the dust-jacket obligingly advises, it is a 20th-century fairytale.

Accordingly it takes just a few pages to get the gist of things. Ambelin intends to off-load his financial empire: 'This is my pile . . . I've paid my price for it. My heart's been sick. My soul, also. Both have demanded something of me. I cannot refuse.' We soon meet the intended beneficiaries, and sense the inevitable fact that they will betray him. Even his subsequent flight alone into the wilderness doesn't entirely surprise us.

It's a tale of divestment, succession, of greed and loneliness - King Lear meets David Lynch - and what grips is the detailed precision, the intricacies that North invests in his cast of modern Americans, the baggage they carry, the disparate worlds they inhabit.

That said, not all of them come off. Walk-on parts for neurotic New Yorkers are a dime a dozen and Wik Slavery doesn't exactly up the ante. Tycoons? Well, Sayers is agreeably eccentric, he has a passion for rare birds (North is good on the birds and good on the money, he's done his homework) and, as a shadow fluttering about before the intimations of his own mortality, he's pretty good value. But North's real triumph here, and the vindication of his departure from the London territory of his earlier books The Automatic Man and Chapel Street, is Buddy Maze.

Maze - corpulent, corrupt, entirely believable - is a treacly grotesque who sweats, farts, swears and schemes his imprint on to these pages: scratch the surface and up comes the body odour. This is Buddy pretending to grovel to his wife:

' 'Awwww . . . I'm a fuckin' shit you know? A fuckin' shit shit shit.'

'No you're not.'

'I am] To be more worried, here, in the guts, about flyin' in an airplane than about my wife's mastectomy? How's that for shit? Shitty enough? Satan would hate him-fuckin'-self for that.'

'Don't swear, honey, it's ugly.'

'I'm sorry. You're right, it's ugly. I'm sorry.'

She's calling his swearing ugly? Look at her, the fat purse, who's talking about ugly?'

North can do America: he can do the places, he can do the voices, he can do the relationships. His domestic triangle of Amie, TJ and Arthur Cinsaretti is superbly nuanced, couched, as is much of this book, in sure-fire dialogue, acute asides and high-calibre prose.

If there is a sense of fragility about this successful Atlantic crossing, it comes from the manner of the novel's construction, the democratic cutting from character to character, backdrop to backdrop: there are no heroes here on which to hang a dense, truly conventional narrative. Echoing the plight of the character at its centre - alienated, restless, driven - there are times when The Gifting Programme seems like a novel in search of its own soul. But, again, Sam North is too accomplished to have let that slip through unnoticed.