23rd May 1997 at 01:00
DO WHITE WALES SING AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD? Paul Wilson. Granta pound;15.99

GENTS. Warwick Collins. Marion Boyars, pound;11.95

THE UNTOUCHABLE. John Banville. Picador, pound;15.99

I've said before in this column that book jackets do nothing for me in themselves. I've long been a fan of those old, plain yellow Gollancz covers, the nearest British approximation to Gallimard or Pleiades. It's titles that draw me in, and a title like Do White Wales Sing at the Edge of the World? by Paul Wilson (Granta pound;15.99) is the literary equivalent of a sucker punch.

Often such things fail to deliver beyond the title, but this short novel is a quiet masterpiece. Set in a north country, for the mentally infirm, slowly emptying as its population ages and dies or is consigned to the "community", it reverberates with mysterious dream-like parallels.

The narrator is Lukic, a one-armed inmate more lucid than the others, who observes his friend Gabriel, half-angel, half rustic, drift in and out of communication with the old searchers for the North West Passage. Angels are in danger of becoming hackneyed and trite, but there is a quality to Lukic's voice and to Wilson's prose, a plain-spokenness and absence of irony, which makes this book quite compelling.

By contrast, a title like Gents doesn't seem quite so compelling. Nor does the synopsis of Warwick Collins' short novel (Marion Boyars pound;11.95) about the three West Indian men running an underground convenience in central London. Initial scepticism, though, quickly disappeared. Though brief - certainly too brief for the outrageous price - Gents is a deceptively powerful and tender book, part realism, part-fantasy. Ezekiel Murphy is the newcomer to the job, a strict Adventist who is horrified to find that his new place of work is an Ortonish "cottage", a place for fleeting sexual encounters between men, or "reptiles", and occasionally for antagonistic thugs who convert their homophobia into outbursts of racism.

Ez and his colleagues mount a campaign against the cottagers, rattling sticks under doors, hooking up dummy cameras and surveillance signs, only to find that by reducing the incidence of casual sex they have also cut their own turnstile takings and put one of their number out of work. Collins writes without adornment or rhetoric, a polished, shining prose that is neither prurient nor antiseptic, but gazes honestly at human foibles and the essential ironies of modern life. A startling, wonderful book.

If Gents is short and disciplined, John Banville's The Untouchable (Picador pound;15.99) borders on a kind of self-indulgence only justified by subject matter and central character. The protagonist is identified as "Victor Maskell", but is clearly modelled on Anthony Blunt, the keeper of the Queen's pictures who in 1979 provided the Thatcher government with its first major - no pun intended - embarrassment. The Untouchable begins as MaskellBlunt is unmasked as a spy and thrown to the gentlemen - and lady - of the press. Miss Vandeluer, a freelance researcher, becomes his nemesis, the goad to a long process of self-revelation which looks into the origins and the motivation of the Cambridge spies, their curious syncretism of homosexuality and Marxism, socialist egalitariansim and aristocratic excess.

The title clearly refers to Maskell's plight as a social pariah, but it also hints that the real truth, the real why and wherefore, cannot be reached. There is an almost admirable mystery to a man whose politics are driven by aesthetics, and whose aesthetic has a profound political dimension. Haunted for much of his life by a tiny Poussin of the death of Seneca, he eventually chooses the path of self-destruction, the so-called "coward's way out".

As ever, Banville has written a coolly intelligent novel in which art and other kinds of understanding are inextricably linked. The cast of secondary characters is no more disguised than Blunt: Graham Greene, Guy Burgess, Louis MacNeice and other moths round the strange seductive flame that burned secretively at the heart of the British establishment. A fascinating and sometimes even moving novel, not up to the standard of The Book of Evidence, but tribute nonetheless to Banville's great powers.

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