Fiction

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Anyone who has read any of Tom Sharpe's fiction will recognise the sense of a world, just millimetres away from this one but governed by a thoroughly malicious (rather than merely careless) God. One who observes with a certain squirming detachment. Sharpe is the closest thing I can think of to Carl Hiaasen, except that I do actually feel for Hiaasen's characters. Stormy Weather (Macmillan Pounds 15.99) is his sixth novel and he must surely be piling up class-action lawsuits from readers with anything from minor herniation to major displacement of the lower mandible. Funny, or what?

Displaced lower mandibles play their part in Stormy Weather. The hero (in the sense of "reasonably straight good guy"; this is not heroic fiction) juggles skulls as a hobbymemento mori. The most obvious bad guy has a busted, badly set jaw; the stricken, swamp-dwelling former Governor lacks an eye, etc and so forth. Across this cross-section of damaged humanity blows a hurricane out of the Book of Judges. The central plot concerns the Gov's abduction of a lifeless newly-wed who has left most of his small, pinched soul back on Madison Avenue. Add to the hurricane, the hyped-up materialism, and the all-round, end-of-century nuttiness, a whole passle of escaped critters, some venomous, some just very sharp at limbs' end, and you have a recipe for a Hiaasen novel.

Toads make a cameo appearance. The Governor smokes refined venom before setting his living suppliers free. Bufo calimata is at the centre of Niall Duthie's extraordinary Natterjack (Faber Pounds 8.99), a densely verbal tale about a young Moor - dubbed Toad at school - who retreats into an extraordinary world of language, echoing (interestingly enough) the flat literalness of one of Tom Sharpe's nastiest throwback characters: That's it; go on, smash the place to bits . . . Crash, bang. Ranald T Shearer is a gentler soul, indeed a rather passive individual. He has a friend, Macbeth, who is, of course, ambitious, and also touched with a witchy fatedness, but I somehow didn't begin to care about either, too absorbed in the sheer richness of Duthie's prose, which is remarkable, believe me. Second time around, they may come to life more convincingly.

I wouldn't have looked to Rachel Billington for one of the novels of the month, but Magic and Fate (Macmillan Pounds 15.99) is a genuine surprise. Supermodel Sissie Slipper (that was a lapse) does a Naomi Campbell and tumbles on the catwalk, losing a tooth and leaving a hole in a million-dollar smile. It is the search for the missing tooth, and a new pink hat for her mother that makes up the remainder of this unexpected contemporary fairy tale. Billington perhaps piles in too much contemporary detail. It is often not quite clear where we are reality-wise, and just as the world is too much with poor Sissie on her "not quite believable" adventures, so it is too much with us as we go, sympathetically, curiously, along.

There is a dentist who deserves to be struck off, a sheikh on secondment from every other mini-series you ever saw, and there is a shadowy Author, presumably in charge of all this, but like the male deities of Sharpe and Hiaasen, not doing a spankingly good job of it. A great read, I promise. Ludicrous, though, that these things should still be coming out in hardback at a price like this. It's been a good spell for Macmillan's fiction list; perhaps they could take a lead (or follow Faber and Secker, and others) and switch uncompromisingly to paperback originals.

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