Filler content with fags and lager

Another review from The Third Alternative #42:-

FAGS AND LAGER by CHARLIE WILLIAMS

Serpent’s Tail pb, 312pp, £7.99                                           

Charlie Williams’ sequel to Deadfolk returns us to Mangel, the West Country’s answer to the Big Apple. Things are changing in Mangel: the town is seeing an unprecedented wave of adolescent crime, as the young people look to satisfy their craving for euphemistically named ‘sweets’ brought in from the outside. Royston Blake is still minding door at Hoppers though, so not everything is going to hell in a hand basket. Greengrocer Doug offers our hero a large sum of fags and lager to return his errant daughter Mona to the family fold and beat the crap out of the older man she’s dating, which shouldn’t pose too much of a problem to a thug of Blake’s calibre. Only it turns out the man in question, one Nick Nopoly, is the new owner of Hoppers and so poor old Blake faces a conflict of interest, his dilemma compounded when Nick, who seems kindly disposed towards him, offers promotion to the cherished post of personal minder, a job Royston Blake feels he was born for. Of course Blake manages to screw things up, both for himself and everyone around him, but the fun is in finding out how he does this and how these events fit into the larger scheme of Mangel’s nascent drug trade.

Fags and Lager reprises much of its predecessor’s strengths, with Royston Blake once again the unreliable narrator to the max, as all the events are filtered through his somewhat jaundiced perceptions, both as to his own intelligence and standing in the community, with so much of the black comedy arising out of the tension between reality and Blake’s badly skewed view of things. By and large the supporting cast are simply foils for Blake, even such larger than life characters as the supposedly omniscient Nathan the bartender, their main purpose to move the plot along and provide opportunities for Blake to be an even bigger plonker than on the previous page. Scenes such as that where Blake imagines a conversation with his hero Clint Eastwood are the tip of a substantial comic iceberg.

Williams is very good at plotting, with a story that ties itself in knots only to effortlessly undo them all before the finale, and the past coming back to haunt Blake only, of course, he’s too dumb to realise. It’s up to the author to provide the real skinny while his narrator remains blissfully oblivious, cleverly shifting our perceptions, with narrative devices that reveal what is really going on, hints about events in the past and sidebar views of the present. One such trick put to effective use is that of prefacing each chapter with newspaper reports that fill in the background and add some verisimilitude to the story.

And yet, enjoyable as this is, there’s no denying that some of the shine has worn off of Williams’ creation, the novelty of Deadfolk giving way to a sense of carefully orchestrated outrage as the norm. In the previous book Blake was a big man with a little brain, and therefore suitable material for laughter, his pretensions and self-deception all grist for the comedic mill, but now the act is wearing thin and by the end I was wondering how much more I could take. How many more sentences with fuck in just about every other line, how many more Ford Cortina eulogies, how many more episodes that show women are only good for the one thing, and so on. Bottom line is that Blake is a bore, and the thing with all bores is that eventually the tedium of spending time in their company comes to overshadow any amusement their delusions about themselves might engender. As characters in fiction they come with their own in-built obsolescence. So far Williams has kept on the right side of the line, but it’s legitimate to wonder how much longer he can stay there.

There’s a lot to commend this book, far more than not. The West Country setting is an appealing venue for the crime aficionado. Mangel comes with an atmosphere of its own and an inbred populace who wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Lovecraft. It offers a unique alternative to all those downtown streets in which the bad guys usually ply their trade, and Williams has only scratched the surface of its potential. But while I look forward to seeing what he can come up with next, I do hope it isn’t another Royston Blake novel as that particular vehicle for black comedy (a Ford Cortina, no doubt) is now running on close to empty.

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