10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 45

Old school ties

Andrew M. Brown

LEADING THE CHEERS by Justin Cartright Sceptre, £16.99, pp. 246 In his new novel, Justin Cartwright turns his attention to the USA. The narrator, Dan Silas, a newly unemployed adman who lives in a big house in Holland Park, accepts an invitation to return to his high school in Hollybush, Michigan as the keynote speaker at a reunion of the class of '68.

The summons to the Mid-Western town where Dan spent his childhood — his British father had been posted there by General Motors — comes at a moment when events have forced on him unaccus- tomed introspection. Not only has the agency in which he was a partner been bought out by the Japanese, but his girl- friend of eight years has also let him go. Dan now turns to philosophy for guidance, and in particular Emerson, whose Self- Reliance he learnt at Hollybush High: 'Accept the place the divine providence has found for you . . . the connection of events.'

In Hollybush, it turns out that his old girlfriend, a cheerleader named Gloria, had a daughter, Belinda. Gloria is now claiming that Belinda is Dan's, the product of a hasty coupling in the bed of the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, during a school outing to the Monticello museum. Belinda herself has only recently been murdered by a serial killer, and so that he may make amends and fulfil his paternal duty Gloria wants Dan to visit Belinda's killer, and find out what her daughter's last words were. The scene in which Dan goes to see the killer is horrible. Serial killing, muses Dan, is the final affront to the American dream, because it is not committed by blacks or Latinos, 'but by the high-school misfit . . . or by some boy with a stiflingly Christian mother'.

Dan's other close friend from the high- school era is Gary Beaner. After Harvard Gary had a breakdown. He now believes that he is Pale Eagle, a dead Indian chief. He asks Dan to steal some Indian artefacts from the British Museum.

The point about Gary is that he may be mentally ill, but he has created his own truth. Dan begins to doubt whether his experiences are his own at all.

Cartwright's primary talent is for descrip- tion. He is better on exteriors than on the inner world or inscape and he or his narra- tor has the morbid fascination of the neu- rotic with what the face reveals about a person's physical health. So, shininess, in the case of Dan's friend Gene, denotes 'cir- culatory staleness'; the postman's skin, gloats Dan, 'is showing signs of trouble within', which means, of course, 'cardio- vascular irregularities'. As for the subplot concerning the would-be native American chief, it is hard to escape the suspicion that it is carefully researched boilerplate, although it does contribute to the general theme.

The America Cartwright presents is the proud custodian of the European inheri- tance, even if it is phony 'heritage', like the leaded baronial windows and imperial eagle gateways that give class to Mid- Western suburban houses. Gary/ Pale Eagle's Indian artefacts are easy for Dan to steal because nobody wants them. But

European artefacts by their nature are exclu- sive. These classy things are meant to repel the overweight people with their junk cars full of paper cups, the bumpers plastered with redneck slogans, their radios turned to moronic chat shows, those people who are unable to tell travertine from Formica or Pal- ladio from plywood.

On the other hand the British, according to Dan's assessment, don't give a stuff about history. They want to live in the present.

That passage is a rare but exhilarating expression of satirical indignation. On the whole Cartwright is probably too kindly and well-adjusted to be an effective satirist. An adman himself, he has the advertiser's intuition about things like a 'national mood', fashion and style which makes his books immense fun to read, and he writes beautifully.