As an experienced Parsons-watcher (right back to his late-Seventies days, when he featured as one of the two ‘hip young gunslingers’ of the New Musical Express), I wasn’t looking forward to his novel. Books often resemble their authors, or rather their authors’ public performances, and so cockiness could have been the order of the day. Chastening to report, then, that Man and Boy is a curiously humble and endearing performance, and that by the end my opinion of Tony Parsons had undergone a 180-degree turn.
Naturally, this account of a thirty-year-old TV producer ‘gradually learning what words like love and family mean’ sails all the way into Cliché Creek from the opening chapter, when our hero finds himself in a car showroom, eyeing up the latest babe-mobile. What distinguishes Parsons’s effort from a shelfful of ‘male identity’ outings is his ability to take the traditional framework of the genre – Happily Married Man Makes Awful Mistake – and work within it to produce a series of wholly unexpected twists and eddies.
Harry Silver, Parsons’s hero, works on something called The Marty Mann Show – Mann is your usual Chris Evans epigone and TV lamebrain. Married to the scissor-legged Gina, with a Star Wars-obsessed four year-old named Pat (neat marketing ploy, that), he seems set for an uxorious roller-coaster ride through his thirties – until, that is, a fling with moist-eyed Siobhan from the office and an intercepted mobile-phone message send Gina to Japan, leaving Harry to do the childcare. His job goes down the can at the same time.
A Kramer vs Kramer scenario ensues. But while much of what happens – He Bonds With His Son, He Meets A Very Nice Girl – has a join-the-dots inevitability, Parsons’s technique rarely fails him. One mark of the high level of technical ability on display is his trick of taking clichéd situations, milking them for the drama they contain, and then mildly sending them up – as when a ‘parrot-like’ Harry, confronted by mad-as-hell wife, burbles: ‘Please don’t stop loving me.’
The other characters, too, are done with a meticulous attention to detail that stops them fading away into walk-ons. Pride of place goes to Gina’s dad, Glenn, a deeply sad former pop performer (one hit back in the early 1970s), and, above all, Harry’s own father, whose relationship with his son, pressed into relief by his death, is one of the novel’s key themes. Silver Sr, in fact, is a sharp and subtle portrait – a kindly disposed but hard-as-nails ex-commando. One of the best scenes in the book comes when Harry, summoned by his mother with news of a burglary, arrives to find Dad triumphant over the winded forms of two teenage housebreakers.
It would be unfair to give away the ending; it is enough to say that the moral attitudes kicked into view early on are sustained, without drawing attention to themselves but to heartening effect. Within the terms of reference that it sets itself, Man and Boy succeeds perfectly – it is a neatly written, wholly serious ‘popular’ bloke’s novel. Curiously – and this is not meant to be a sexist jibe – the result is much less affected and nasty than its female equivalent. Rather than drawing attention to himself and his style preferences, and settling for the cheap gag, Parsons simply plays it straight.
Looking at the wider picture, if this is the direction in which British chaps’ fiction is heading, then no one who cares about contemporary writing can seriously complain. Upmarket male literary fiction of the Amis, Barnes, McEwan and Swift school has been dead in the water for a good ten years, and one needs something to read in the evenings. This isn’t to pretend for a moment that Parsons has a tithe of the feeling for language evinced by, say, Graham Swift. But he can tell a plausible story in a convincing voice. In the current literary climate, these are virtues to be thankful for.