Living the high life
Inheritance Nicholas Shakespeare (Harvill Secker £12.99)
Most blockbusting Hollywood films and a great many best-selling novels rely for their success on a 'What-if?' Nicholas Shakespeare's earlier novel The Dancer Upstairs asked what if a cop fell in love with a ballet teacher and what if the ballet teacher was harbouring a world-famous terrorist? The formula worked -- in 2002 the great actor John Malkovich directed a film based on the book.
In his new novel Shakespeare presents us with another twin set of what-ifs. In his brilliantly peculiar opening chapter a man wanders through a hallucinatory Australian desert and instead of dying of thirst discovers 1,000 million tons of high-grade iron ore.
In the second chapter Andy Larkham, a louche Londoner, goes to a funeral and as a result inherits £17m. We know the dough must be connected to the Aussie iron -- and so we read on, eager to find out what the connection is while vicariously enjoying what the Lotto promises: "It could be you."
Andy Larkham is a bit like his name: larky and a bit hammy when it come to women.
His flat is "a dump where filth combined with sadness to produce an odour like hung pheasant", and when his girlfriend dumps him, in a Portuguese restaurant, she stations her replacement lover at a nearby table in case Andy cuts up rough.
Andy works in a publishing house which specialises in how-to manuals. Some of these are bound to be successful: The Valentino Alfresco Sex Guide for instance -- "A bird-bath is the ideal height for upright sex" -- but How to Make a Million by the Time You're Thirty has only sold 284 copies and the prospects for a self-help guide to depression called Learn to Make Your Black Dog Your Guide-Dog are problematic.
However, although Andy is a bloke, he is quite a literary one. An unpublishable book about the philosopher Montaigne nags at his conscience and when its author dies he goes to the funeral. By mistake he goes to the wrong cremation, a gloomily farcical occasion attended by only one other person. But -- lo and behold -- the deceased, one Christopher Madigan, has stipulated in his will that his immense fortune (the iron ore) is to be divided amongst the mourners.
The fact that Madigan has a daughter, Jeanine, should take the gas out of the wheeze straight away, but the UK's inheritance laws, unlike our own, apparently allow Brits to leave their money to whomsoever they like and sod the next-of-kin.
Nonetheless, Jeanine, who is quite a doll, caves in remarkably easily and allows Andy to get his hands on the £17m. Whereupon, as an English bloke would, he buys his mum a garden centre, and for himself a flat in Kensington and "a silver CLK 63 AMG Cabriolet". (To you and me that's a Mercedes.)
He then sets off for the Continent, visiting Montaigne's house, Cluny (the monastery, not the girls' school in Killiney), Capri, Vienna, Rome, Venice, Sorrento etc etc, and devotes himself to enjoying the favours of a variety of babes, including the one who dumped him in the restaurant above.
Meanwhile, back in London, a friend called Dave, who is an eminent film critic, is trying to find out all he can about Madigan. This is where things, already becoming odder by the day, turn very peculiar.
Andy, who hasn't taken much interest in his mysterious benefactor, largely because of the sex and the CLK, suddenly feels compelled to break into Madigan's London home and engage in conversation with the magnate's housekeeper.
Madigan turns out to be Krikor Makertich, a refugee from the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. His story is exotic and action packed -- he only has one eye, for example, because he managed to spear himself on the branch of an apple tree.
But here technical difficulties arise. Makertich's story begins on page 135 and, except for a brief coda tying up a thread factory of loose ends, it occupies the entire second half of the novel. Andy and his adventures more or less disappear from view.
To use a bloke-ish term, this is a game of two halves, and the halves don't fit together to make a satisfactory match.
That being said, Shakespeare writes an appealingly wonky prose: his girlfriend, for example, gives his shoulder "a ball-wrenching squeeze", and on another occasion his face blushes "like a spanked bottom".
As for the plot, it "all sounded preposterous, but then again not". In short, the entire performance sounds like something concocted by Evelyn Waugh and Tom Sharpe after smoking a pound of marijuana. Can't be bad, can it?
Brian Lynch is a poet, novelist, screenwriter and publisher of the Duras Press.