Stuart Nadler has come out swinging, to use a suitably well-worn American expression. His debut novel, Wise Men (Picador 335pp £14.99) is an admirably bold piece of work, crowded with hefty all-American themes, which strives for continent-sized significance. Such audacity could very well have backfired, so it is to Nadler’s great credit that he just about gets away with it.
The novel is narrated by Hilly Wise, an elderly man haunted by a summer spent at his family’s Cape Cod residence. Hilly had struck up a clandestine friendship with the house’s caretaker, whom his parents treated with racist disdain. But after a romantic entanglement with the man’s niece, Hilly became inadvertently responsible for his murder. Guilt-stricken, he has spent his life holding out for forgiveness from the object of his adolescent affection.
Not only is this tale crammed with startling revelations and heart-rending situations, but every detail reverberates with the vintage preoccupations of American fiction. Race, wealth, the American Dream (of course), rugged individualism, fathers and sons – the novel is in danger of being overloaded. Thankfully, Hilly’s remote perspective provides a healthy distance from this material. Hilly worked as a journalist and he approaches the fallout from that summer as a kind of investigation, which not only imbues the events with a sense of authenticity, but grants the reader breathing space while Hilly is rifling through news footage and following up leads.
Having Hilly survey the story from the perspective of old age also colours his account with a bygone hue; it almost feels written in sepia. At one point Hilly expresses disdain for the cynical sensibility of his children’s generation – musings that read like a covert defence of this old-fashioned novel, and a display of nostalgia for a brasher kind of writing, characterised by great drama, great themes and great men. Nadler has produced a stylish debut in this manner, but there is a little too much footstep-following of writers such as Cheever, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In some scenes Gatsby could be staring back from the other side of the bay.
If Wise Men is almost a seance for great dead writers, the voice of Gabriel Roth’s The Unknowns (Picador 240pp £14.99) is invigoratingly contemporary: ironic, informal, self-deprecating and energetic. The set-up is essentially Sentimental Education: The Silicon Valley Edition – the amatory adventures of a software developer. A misspent youth in the school computer lab has paid off financially for Eric, but has deprived him of the social know-how needed to make friends and sleep with people.
The narration switches between Eric in his twenties, trying to navigate the dating scene, and Eric in adolescence, filled with unrequited yearnings. A familiar trajectory is established: will he or won’t he achieve romantic maturity and win the girl of his dreams? But the lively tone is interrupted by a discordant mid-novel revelation – the girl he is dating has recovered memory syndrome and believes that she was abused by her father.
Roth is dexterous enough to handle the intermingling of comedy and tragedy, and presumably he intends the disruption of genre to mimic the effects that terrible events have in real life. But it has a peculiar effect on the novel, making much of the earlier material seem tangential, even irrelevant. Roth’s strained attempts at matchmaking are to no avail: the two parts of the novel just don’t have that much in common. But whether or not these components belong together, Roth is certainly an exciting new writer, and The Unknowns contains ample material for a fine debut – perhaps even enough for two.
James Wheatley’s Magnificent Joe (Oneworld Publications 288pp £12.99) also describes a fitful journey from adolescence to maturity, but the challenges facing his young man are very different. In the time Roth’s Eric has made millions, Wheatley’s Jim has been in and out of prison, and he is now back in the small town in northern England where he grew up, lost and disaffected. Jim is an intriguingly prickly character, and the portrayal of his daily grind as a construction worker, described by Jim as ‘van, work, van, home, pub, bed’, feels very convincing.
Wheatley begins with some jolting shifts in time frame and perspective, an attempt to jumpstart the novel that actually drains it of momentum. A flash-forward prologue, which reveals that a main character is murdered and that another runs off with the loot succeeds only in giving away most of the story. But once the novel settles down there is much to enjoy – it’s a dark, affecting tale, a little soapy, but deeply felt. Wheatley should be commended for writing a novel that deals unflinchingly with contemporary British life, but it’s a shame that the prose isn’t always strong enough to give it literary as well as social interest. Too many chapters begin with phrases such as ‘I step out of my door’ – monotony can be conveyed without depriving the prose of character.
Roland Watson-Grant’s novel of poverty, resilience and escape is painted using a much wilder palette. He’s helped by his setting, but the colour is drawn just as much from the exuberant thoughts of his young narrator. Sketcher (Alma Books 320pp £12.99) is the story of the childhood of Skid Beaumont, growing up in a ‘little piece of purgatory’ in the swamplands of Louisiana. It is part rambunctious tale of adolescence and part voodoo ghost story, which mutates into a tale of expropriation at its outlandish, Scooby-Doo-style finale.
As a palliative to hardship, Skid has immersed himself in a world of his imagination and believes that his brother’s drawings have fantastic properties – Skid lives in hope that his brother will sketch their problems away. This is a charming conceit, but one not easy to sustain over a whole novel. It soon becomes apparent that magic isn’t real in the world presented, and so it is hard to share Skid’s hopes for so many pages; as he gets older it becomes harder still to believe that he hasn’t figured it out as well.
Of course Skid’s dreams fail to materialise, which leads to a saccharine conclusion, presented almost in the manner of a children’s storybook – Skid learns to appreciate the beauty in his family’s messy lives. But the trajectory and moral of the novel aren’t really its primary interest, more the scaffolding for what is a richly textured evocation of life in the Bayou, lush with fruitful descriptions and the tall tales of folklore.
Childishness is a more severe problem for Gill Hornby’s debut. The Hive (Little, Brown 350pp £12.99) is a frothy comedy set amid the power struggles of a group of unrepresentatively upmarket mothers in a sketchily drawn English village. This choice of milieu was inspired by the movie Mean Girls – Tina Fey’s standard-issue but surprisingly enjoyable high-school comedy. Hornby’s idea is to flip the script, to show that what goes on among the mothers is just as ripe for a story of knockabout antics as that between the teenage daughters. This is smartly handled in the novel’s opening pages, where the characters congregating nervously on the first day of term are revealed to be parents rather than students.
Among this month’s debuts, Hornby’s is the only one that deals with middle age rather than the journey to adulthood, but it’s the one novel that needs to do some growing up. There’s a case of arrested development in the transition made from schoolgirl to mother. Hornby, in her desire to show the parallels between the worlds of parents and their offspring, has ended up infantilising her characters. The Hive does buzz along satisfactorily, with spiky observations and parochial amusements. But with such diminished characters, the novel is unable to convey the wider appeal of its subject. You don’t have to be a teenage girl to enjoy Mean Girls, or an elderly man to enjoy Wise Men, but The Hive is only likely to be enjoyed by a coterie of school mothers.