By Brian Clegg
There's a strong traditional strand of British humorous writing where a male protagonist gets themselves into various scrapes as they attempt to take on the difficulties of social life – especially so when they don't quite fit. The outstanding examples of writers in this genre were Leslie Thomas, now well out of fashion, and Tom Sharpe, whose more extreme and grotesque versions of this type of situation comedy have perhaps survived better.
Terry White has contributed several twenty-first century titles in the same vein. An early contribution, Till the Fat Lady's Sung (shouldn't that be 'Til?), finds his hero, Marcus Moon, struggling to balance his laddish existence with his banker-like mates, his job as a surveyor and his life with a doctor, who he clearly loves, but for whom he struggles to have totally dedicated feelings.
Moon and his girlfriend Charlie are a bit too successful and normal for a typical Thomas/Sharpe main character, but the various characters that Moon meets with the potential to scupper his plans and his love life are very much from the comic grotesques tradition. Most significant is a power-mad extreme left-winger who sets out to take over a building preservation charity to add weight to a political campaign – in fact, we see part of the action from her viewpoint, which can be a little confusing when the switch is made back to the first person narrator Moon. Left-wing machinations are balanced by chinless inbred right-wingers and a totally bonkers sailor, who plays an unexpected part in the story. Another archetype of the genre is a dominant vicar's wife, who Moon first accidentally knocks off her bike and then appears to have dubious intentions when he is caught fiddling with his flies near her dogs.
Despite appearing to be self-published (more on that in a moment), the book was well proof-read, and White is an assured writer who knows how to use words. Even so, the lack of a formal editor was present, not in the technical writing, but in the way that the author was allowed to get away with being far too generous with those words. Moon's inner monologues sometimes go on for an age and every situation is too wordy. Part of the essence of this style is getting things to move on snappily, and that can't happen with so much thinking going on.
I would also say that the approach sometimes felt old-fashioned, both in the ingrained sexism of the male characters and some of the language used by Moon, which felt more like P. G. Wodehouse than a modern version of Sharpe. Despite that, though, I can't deny that I enjoyed the book, rattled through it quickly and am happy that I have a second (and somewhat slimmer) volume to move onto.
A quick comment on the publishing approach. This comes through in three points – the cover images are dreadful, the print is poor (every third spread is fine, but the rest are far too faint) and no one has told the author that the UK standard is single quotes, not double ones. However, these are all minor issues and don't get in the way of the reading. I got through the book mostly on the train and it's ideal fodder for that kind of a read. This isn't life-changing literature, but provided you can cope with that sexism, it is entertaining.
Now Appearing is the blog of science writer Brian Clegg (www.brianclegg.net), author of Inflight Science, Before the Big Bang and The God Effect.