Fiction & Biography
AMERICAN DRAMA JONATHAN LETHENI The Fortress of Solitude (Faber $312.99) .000
Another year and another literary whizzkid tries to reinvent the dreamy American epic. Many cultural analysts have decried the US scene over the last couple of years for churning out smartasses with laptops whose talents are barely fit to lick Don DeLillo’s metaphors (stand up messrs Franzen, Eggers and Chabon). But among the trick merchants are talents whose output is enough to suggest that the hype may occasionally be deserved. Glen David Gold has risen through the dross to be one. Jonathan Lethem is certainly another.
Not that Lethem can be accurately described a kid anymore, having been around long enough to have written seven pieces of full-length fiction, most notably Motherless Brooklyn, which revolves around a Tourette’s- afflicted private eye. This tremendous story is rumoured to have been nestling in Ed Norton’s ‘To be Made into a Movie’ in-tray for some time now. His talent has certainly been noticed in his native America, with Newsweek numbering him as the only novelist in their fin de siecle ‘100 People for the New Century’ poll.
The Fortress of Solitude takes us into the minutiae of 19705 Brooklyn and the jagged friendship between Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. Dylan is white, the son of artistic, anti-Nixon hippies; Mingus is black, with a cocaine-addled singing father. They share a love of comic books and face neighbourhood trials together but this is no ebony and ivory rose garden as race hatred, family traumas and social injustice contrive to mock their happiness. While very little appears to happen in some passages, the sheer lucidity of the detail and succulent flavour of the prose is enough to sustain every page. And Lethem’s love of names is never more apparent here: as well as the key characters, we have twins Ronald and Donald MacDonald (who have no idea why that would be
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Anyone who has ever used Allen Carr hooks to quit smoking Will know there are two things that are really annoying and self-defeating ahout them. firstly. the man is a hraggart. a hoasting hully in the way that only people who think personalist-zd nuinher plates and Thatcherism were ever a great idea can he. And secondly. he is so long Winded that every time you think you've got the point. he nun‘hs you w:th repetition and yet more hravado. Well. it seems that one of Carr's consultants has recognised this prohlem and set him the task of rewriting his first hook as a warm hearted autohiography or as the hooks suhtitle would have it: 'lhe Inspirational story of one man's guest to cure the world of smoking.'
Carr's first hook. [iasy Way to Stop Smoking was released in 1987. four
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Slated by his fellow Faber scribe Tom Paulin on Newsnight Review as ‘dim’ and ‘talentless’ (the London publisher’s Christmas works night out must have been a blast), Lethem will hopefully have a skin tough enough not to be penetrated by the ravings of his bookish inferiors. For more often than not, he writes like a dream, and unlike the Franzens and Eggers of the world, he knows when to stop being too clever-clever. When you think that he’s on the verge of going off the rails, Lethem will simply take his foot off the gas and get on with the job of satisfying the reader’s soul rather than exposing a massive ego. And for that, Jonathan Lethem should be truly thanked. (Brian Donaldson)
years after Carr had quit his 100 a-day hahit. hut this hook goes much further hack than that. l :ke Nigel Slater in his recent Toast. Carr lays the relevant unpleasant memories of his parents down with a trowel in the certain hope that the reader ‘NIH catch the drift. Unlike Slater. however. Carr really can't write for toffee. and what emerges is a dull tale of a London entreprenrmr who could control everything in his life apart from his puffing.
Carr works hard to sound humhle and open ahout his tohacco discoveries without ever totally giving away the copyright for his very simple idea that ‘we had all heen Victims of an ingenious confidence trick. perpetrated on a gigantic scale: the illusion of nicotine addiction.' No kidding. Allen. The hook is packaged up in an expensive hardhack. suggesting Carr and his puhlishers are now masters at concealing greed and merchandise hehind a mask of humanity. lPaiil Dale)
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While the tender likes of Zadie Smith and Monica Ali have written notable first novels in recent years, 2004’s most talked about debutante is actually a 56-year- old Sunderland granny. Sheila Quigley publishes a gritty thriller Run for Home (Century) having sensationally secured a £300,000 two-book deal last summer. It may be released on 1 April. but Ouigley is clearly having the last laugh.
Helen Walsh is this year's bright young hope from Canongate. Having worked as a ‘fixer’ in Barcelona’s red light district and now employed to help socially excluded Liverpool yomgsters. it’s no surprise that her Brass is bold. raw and cathartic as it traces the story of today‘s Britain through the eyes of a spiky Scouser.
When someone's work is described as ‘if Evelyn Waugh got hold of John Irving's characters and handed them all Pimms'. you sense you may be in for a treat. George Hagen is the writer in question whose debut The Lame/its (Sceptre) tells the tale of a couple who adopt a boy who was accidentally switched at birth. Taking in 19508 Rhodesia and 703 America. this is a romp waiting to happen.
Also tipped for big things this year are Glasgow University literature graduate. poet Cheryl Follon; Siddharth Shanghvi with a novel of eccentric characters populating colonial India; stories of love and longing from 23-year-old Glasgow writer Colette Paul; the ‘grown-up magic meets Jane Austen' of Susanna Clarke and Melissa P, whose blistering bestselling Italian debut prompted the Pope to issue a “remain chaste' warning.