11 MARCH 1995, Page 35

Trouble with yer men

Michael Bywater

DIVORCING JACK by Colin Bateman HarperCollins, £4.99, pp. 282 Poor Colin Bateman, peace breaking out in Ireland like that. His book is about an Ulster journalist who, thanks to a chance meeting and impetuous drunken kiss, finds himself in all kinds of hot water with yer men. Guns, bombs, spooks, politi- cos, hard men, a nun with a gun. Corpses. Yer man pops out for a pizza and comes back to find his girl shot. No better than she oughta be but it's a bad business, d'ye understand me, a . , . bad . . . business. Well of course it's yer men, but yer men aren't who yer man thinks they are. Result: imbroglio. Bang Bang! Thud-thud-thud as the poor old lady goes down the stairs and God help us all breaks her neck. Ha ha! No! Aaaargh! It's the IRA! Thud! Screeeeech! Crump! Whoomph! Plumes of flame and black smoke over the brow of the hill! Everything gets resolved in the end but — God in heaven — what a world we live in, eh? Do you see what I mean?

Plus of course there's a bit where yer man takes a dive off a 12th-storey balcony — not yer man, but the other fella — and, do you know what I'm telling you, it's the mark of a good read, when yer man takes a dive off of a 12th-storey balcony. A sure sign. No complaints on that score. Oh dear me no.

Trouble is, the bloody IRA have gone and declared a ceasefire. Well, yer man must have been feeling in two minds about that one. But never mind; I think he'll not do too badly. As a matter of fact, he's not done too badly already. Won the Betty Trask Award 1995. A sizeable sum, though the judges' criteria of excellence are unknown to me. You have to be under 35, I believe. Why?

A good man for prizes and such, Mr Bateman. Got a Journalist's Fellowship to Oxford; I don't know about that either but it sounds good. And a Northern Ireland Press Award for his satirical column, which is a bit of a worm. For all I know Mr Bate- man may be a master of the trade. But there is no evidence of satire in this book. Not much of humour, either, or of comedy, even. There's the old exaggerate-the-cliché trick:

It would be out of the frying-pan into the inferno ...

and the old self-contradiction trick leading seamlessly into end-the-sombre-list-with- bathos trick:

Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to push him over the edge. In fact, a lot of things would have given me greater pleasure. Margaret alive. Her mother alive. Parker back. An end to my persecution. A decent haircut . . .

and the old comic-alienation-through-self- conscious-textual-irony trick:

We tied them up with a roll of electric flex we found in the kitchen. Flats like that always have rolls of flex for tying people up ...

and the old dim-bruiser-demotic technique: `Good sammies, Pat. Just what the doctor ordered.' A doctor ordered these?' asked Mad Dog. `They brought us a doctor's food? What sorta fuckin' place is that?' Maddie,' said Coogan, mock scolding, `shut up.'

So i s Divorcing Jack, in short, a no- hoper, a dog, a turkey? No. It's just not funny. That wouldn't matter were it not for his satire prize, the blurb describing it as `One of the funniest ... debut novels of recent years,' and the earnest straining after comic effect which is really just that arch joshing described in the personal columns as `gsoh' (good sense of humour, and mystifyingly regarded there as 'essen- tial'). Remove all that, and Divorcing Jack is rather a good thriller. I'm worried that his Journalist's Fellowship to Oxford has given Mr Bateman the notion that there's some- thing base about writing a straightforward thriller. Perhaps he feels it has to be dressed up with dud jokes to show he's not naive enough to think thrillers are really worth writing. He shouldn't. People who don't like thrillers and tees are not fit to `I want one with a burglar in it.' live. He would be wise not to consider them because he has a flair for the genre. He can construct a plot and push it along at a lick, his transitions are spare and eco- nomical, his characters have just enough depth to be sympathetic but not so much that they start agonising (or we on their behalf), he writes good action, and his style is unclogged with the preciosities of litrachewer, so he'll translate well.

All he has to do is forget that he is con- sidered to have a gsoh, and he'll be able to forget about prizes and live well on his royalties.