The hubristic fall of a smugly successful middle-aged man is a staple formula for contemporary novels and it fits Tim Walker’s anti-hero, adman Jerry Manville, like a glove.
A large detached house on Highbury Hill stands at the centre of the action. In an age of “property-porn” our reverence for bricks and mortar far outstrips the Veneerings’ lust for new stuff in Our Mutual Friend, and the threat hanging over this desirable residence will have readers hyperventilating with dread. In the first chapter, in flashback, Jerry and his first wife Pen refurbish their home, Jerry personally stencilling and stippling, creating the kind of mise en scène beloved by stylists from colour supplements. We learn that it became the setting for The House on the Hill, a series of wildly popular children’s books written and illustrated by Pen, starring her children Isobel and Conrad — the Topsy and Tim or Charlie and Lola of their day. Now Isobel and Conrad are in their twenties, and their mother lives a French idyll with a new husband, a tall, courteous, cultured Cambridge graduate she met online (a fanciful touch by the otherwise sure-footed author: distinguished widowers with houses in France rarely require the internet to find a match).
Jerry, by contrast, whose professional zenith was a TV campaign for a Korean pro-biotic yoghurt drink named Ppalleena! is now portly and doubly alimony-burdened, inhabiting a bachelor loft in King’s Cross — still receiving every week a chilled Jiffy bag of seven Ppalleena! drinks from the grateful company. On weekdays he skulks in his Soho club and masturbates twice, sometimes using Nigella’s image on YouTube. His weekends bring absent-father duties with his daughter by the second ex-wife, Genevieve, living in minimalist splendour in the Notting Hill house he bought after selling his company.
The awful Jerry finds himself assaulted by the irritations of modern London — epicentre of all that corrodes the soul. Traffic wardens, investment bankers, Islamic fundamentalists, overpriced lawyers, conceptual artists (posturing idiots), art dealers. His Guardian-reading neighbour, always irritating, watches squatters invade his house, and does nothing. Stuck in the Underground, he is surrounded by people consuming smelly wraps and playing rap music, and hordes of yammering Spanish schoolchildren. In a police station (having got hog-whimpering drunk after an epic pub crawl) so swollen is the bolus of rage inside him he “might just have to start gunning people down in the street”. When I read various bits aloud to my husband (it’s that kind of book: you want to share the hilarity) he said: “Sounds a bit like Ed Reardon, written by a woman.” But having revealed the author’s gender I realised that he was right — the rage is like Reardon, whose angry freelance writer’s diary is Radio 4’s best sitcom, but the perceptions are of the sort found in keen-eyed Posy Simmonds’s graphic novels, with touches of Joanna Trollope or Deborah Moggach.
Consider Pen’s revulsion at her new husband’s disgusting old Labrador, Bennett. All he wants is a pat on the head but “the drool dangled from his chops as Pen prepared his lunch or his dinner, spooning biscuity meal and chunks of Chum into the bowl labelled DOG.” But once Bennett is dead, she tearfully spies his bowl, his bone, his blanket, his beanbag. “Admirable really. If only she could have been so free of frippery.”
Here are some of the themes Walker touches on with unnerving accuracy and authority: middle-aged lovemaking, including Pen’s awareness of “her flaccid old flesh and the loose hanging flab where her tricep ought to have been”; the features of cool young men’s indie bikes, down to their DT Deep Swiss rims; the social lives of the young in Hoxton or London Fields with their sofas found on skips, their conversation replaced by friending, trending, tagging, posting, browsing Facebook profiles, their thumbs going like pistons as they stare at their screens, their resentment at the Baby Boomer generation who wrecked the planet and the economy.
Poor Conrad. Made famous in infancy like Christopher Robin, he was raised to expect a career in a creative profession — his post-uni jobs included “six months shifting at Disastrous TV” — but is unprepared for disappointment, and he is now Conrad the amiable failure, stacking shelves. The sale of his parents’ house would clear all his debts at a stroke. His cyber-freak sister Isobel is savvier. Her foray into journalism at uni (a story printed by the Daily Mail as “Booze Shame Of Britain’s Students”) leads only to unpaid internships supplemented by barmaid shifts. To escape from the threat of a spinsterish mother-daughter symbiosis with Pen, she flees to the Emirates and ensnares a German banker. Nightmarish-sounding life in Dubai, where traffic control is left to Allah, is lightened by two Australian characters whose speech patterns are captured unerringly here.
Walker is more than a generation away from Piers Paul Read, but his novel sometimes reminded me of Read’s 2010 novel The Misogynist, a bleakly hilarious portrait of a mid-life crisis in London. I don’t think Read would have subjected readers to Tim Walker’s agonisingly destructive climax, like Grand Theft Auto V. But I hope neither will mind if I mention that Walker is Read’s son-in-law, who has made a corker of a debut.