BOOK REVIEW / Lady Chatterley meets John Lennon: The Hounding of John Thomas - Craig Brown; Century, pounds 19.99

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The Independent Online
Not quite Naomi Campbell or Robert Newman, perhaps, but Craig Brown is almost a celebrity novelist. He has been the Times's political sketchwriter, Sunday Times restaurant reviewer, Private Eye parodist and London Evening Standard columnist; he is the official humorous voice of liberal, middle-class, thirtysomething, South-east England. He lives, we are told, in a field in Essex with his wife and two children, 'Tallulah' and 'Silas'.

With the book-buying public, one feels, Brown already has an ace up his sleeve, in that he himself is one of them.

We all know he can cut it over the shorter distances. The question is, how will Brown fare with 200 pages to fill? It would, after all, be delightful to announce the arrival of a genuinely amusing novelist.

With The Hounding of John Thomas, Brown has stacked as many odds as possible in his favour. He has chosen the safe territory of literary parody - the book is a continuation of Lady Chatterley's Lover - and he has neatly side-stepped the need for long descriptive passages by writing the novel in the form of letters, news cuttings and diary extracts.

The story falls roughly into three parts. In the first, Connie (Lady Chatterley) and Mellors - following their flight from Wragby - establish a grocery store, whereupon Mellors loses his rugged charm and metamorphoses into another Sir Clifford. Lady Chatterley falls instead for a rough-hewn customer named Bellows, on the old Monty Python basis that replacing the first letter of someone's name with a 'B' sounds funny. It is an acceptable reversal gag, but after 29 pages of the same joke a sense of desperation begins to creep in. Whither the plot now?

The second part switches from literary parody to political satire, and jumps a generation to follow the fortunes of Mellors's and Connie's son, John Thomas. He is a Conservative MP in the Spitting Image mould, an unthinking, one-dimensional compendium of all human vices, who relentlessly condemns himself out of his own mouth. John Thomas, we are meant to deduce, is a prick.

As a confirmed moralist he thinks that if the truth of his parentage comes out it will mean the end of his career, so he tries to murder a potentially hostile biographer. This joke occupies 118 pages, a figure the reader has totted up well before the 118th hoves into view.

The third part heralds another violent switch, this time to trouser-dropping farce, as Wragby Hall becomes the venue for a Sixties pop festival starring John Lennon and Yoko Ono. John and Yoko are flying over from Amsterdam in a sealed canvas bag, you see, so as not to be disturbed, and the plan is that the bag will not be opened until it is actually on stage in front of thousands of people. But - wait for it - a different bag containing Sir Clifford, Connie and Mellors, all in the nude, who have been undergoing some sort of sexual reunion, is inadvertently opened on stage instead, with hilarious consequences.

It is in this final section, as Brown desperately tries to work the three parts of the book into a single denouement, that one begins to feel sympathetic, and to wish that he had set himself a simpler task, such as achieving lasting peace in Northern Ireland. His parody of the Sixties pop scene goes seriously awry in the process; he even forgets that they did not have decimal currency in those days.

Pick any page of The Hounding of John Thomas at random and it reads reasonably amusingly. It is no easy business filling 200 pages with jokes, and Brown has stuck at his task earnestly and manfully (although not always successfully - as with the device of having one character write 'trific turific trrifi very demanding' and 'dissap dissopayn dissapon upset'). But, like a television sketchwriter having a go at writing a sitcom, the columnist who wishes to be a novelist must first learn the plotting skills of the serious dramatist and the gift of imbuing characters with sympathy.

Otherwise, who will wish to read 200 witty columns all on the same subject?

Not this reviewer, I'm afraid.