Hemingway's Chair by Michael Palin, Methuen #163;14.99 High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Gollancz #163;14.99 Still by Adam Thorpe, Secker and Warburg, #163;15.99 Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, 4th Estate #163;14.99 As anyone in the industry will tell you, publishing is currently haunted by the "celebrity novel". Private Eye and others love to speculate how much really is the putative author's own work, and how much has been simply cut and tailored to fit an image, whether that be stand-up comic, (putatively) sexy parliamentarian, super model, and so on. One approached Michael Palin's fictional debut Hemingway's Chair (Methuen #163;14.99) bristling with similar doubts and queries. Except of course that it is merely his first novel, that ailing breed which increasingly needs the succour of celebrity, and not at all his first fiction.
Palin's whole career has been premised on the making of fictions as a kind of bulwark or defence. His films The Missionary and American Friends quite consciously transform aspects of his own family background, yet they and Hemingway's Chair conspicuously avoid the notorious pitfall of "first novels", the autobiographical obsession. The novel's not-quite-hero is a small-town post office clerk who finds his job threatened by the modernisers and his equanimity severely disturbed by the arrival in the district of an American academic who shares, albeit in a hostile, feminist way, his obsession with Ernest Hemingway.
Martin is not a man built for adventure, either fighting with the partisans, landing giant fish, fighting bulls, or bedding glamorous women, but in the parallel, "Hemingway" world all these things are at least notionally possible. Though Palin has not set out to write a "comic novel",there are strong comic possibilities in all of this. Martin's cautiously compromised heroism, and his eventual affair with his American anima Ruth Kohler, are played for laughs. Ruth is no more convincing than any of Hemingway's women (her own subject), nor is the plot, as other reviewers have pointed out, entirely watertight. However, it's a fine first venture, by the most interesting and complex of the Pythons.
Neither interesting nor complex is another celeb novel, this time at least with the justification that its author knows how to put words on paper. Unfortunately, the gifts that made Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch the definitive soccer fan's book are not in evidence in High Fidelity (Gollancz), the story of another anorak-y individual with a prevailing obsession. Rob Fleming collects and sells records. He has not yet, as they say, got a life. Nor does he take on any significant sort of life in Hornby's hands, beyond - forgive the pun - a clockwork delivery of jokes against himself.
Another great curse of publishing is that tricky second novel. Writing Barbary Shore after the huge success of The Naked and the Dead nearly killed Norman Mailer and he has suffered the backlash ever since. Two new books this past month from brilliant debutants who were heaped with the burden of promise first time round. One good, one disappointing. Not to dismiss Adam Thorpe and Still (Secker and Warburg #163;15.99) by coming to him first; it is, though, a huge disappointment after the intuitive brilliance of the shamefully non-Booker winning Ulverton. Capturing the fading thoughts of a faded movie-maker, it has some of the ambitious sweep and horror of Michael Moorcock's recent Pyat cycle, with none of the verve or moral daring.
Relentlessly clever, it is as forced and contrived as Ulverton was immediate and almost tactile in its registration of experience.
Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (4th Estate Pounds 14.99) is also about a failing artist, and also about the perils of "promise". Grady Tripp's gifts have fallen victim to adultery, divorce, marijuana, self-pity, and the obstinate pressure to progress and develop, as artist if not as a man. Chabon himself was widely and rightly feted on publication of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh five years ago. The wait for its successor has been unexpectedly long but Wonder Boys, also the title of Tripp's unfinishable novel, is a stroke of further brilliance, sourer and more unsentimental than its predecessor, but still rich with sympathy.
Interestingly, a filmic theme also intrudes, in the shape of a darkly unformed young creative writing student called James Leer, one of Grady's unfortunate charges. James has Frank Capra's name crudely tattooed on the back of his hand, and has invited an "author's biography" for himself that attempts to compensate for the decidedly un-Capra-like tenor of his real life and background. His relationship with Grady, and with Grady's agent Crabtree, constantly skirts disaster, as James makes his way into the light. Chabon brilliantly balances horror and surrealism with genuine affection and a touching glimpse of the artistic personality stalled and wounded. A superb book. If you buy only one novel this year . . .