Novel of the week

Human Punk

John King <em>Cape, 345pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0224060481

Human Punk plots the life and adventures of Joe Martin, a working-class lad from Slough, between the years 1977 and 1999. His odyssey from 15-year-old punk to 38-year-old DJ is told in a dense stream of consciousness that spares nothing: every cracked head, broken window and dribble of snot is recorded in jagged detail. Joe attains eventually a kind of maturity, but continues to fear responsibility; he becomes well travelled, but is still parochial; he can be reflective and sensitive to others, yet lacks wisdom and is sometimes cruel. It is a life lived, in Michael Bracewell's resonant phrase, "on the terrifying wasteland between innocence and experience".

In its ambition and exuberance, Human Punk is a league ahead of much contemporary English fiction. It is a suburban epic that charts the raucous death of industrial England and its rebirth as a greedy, fragmented, bullying, hypocritical, narco-fixated, celebrity-obsessed country. By underscoring the disjunction between liberal, metropolitan elites and the rest of the country, it is also a spiky reminder that London is not England.

John King's narrative brings him back to themes familiar to readers of his previous books. Joe riffs about nationality, government, family life and the relationship between men and women, although the platitudes he peddles scarcely rise above the level of bar-room haggle. Much more arresting are the important questions that the book raises about the rules that govern masculine behaviour and the genesis of male violence.

Human Punk is strewn with battered and bruised bodies and concludes with a savage revenge killing. King (or his characters at least) draws a moral distinction between bad violence - thuggery involving knives or perpetrated by bullies - and good clean violence - thuggery committed in the name of self-defence, loyalty or natural justice. Both are lawless, take place in public, spark vendettas and involve face-splitting, bone-breaking acts of cruelty.

What matters to King's characters is not the existence of violence per se - which they compel us to accept, like the weather, as a force of nature - but the motive for violent acts. Hence the sense in King's books that viciousness can be good or bad, even if it has the same outcome. The plot is driven by the impact of individual acts of brutality, though it is difficult to grasp what the book as a whole is trying to say about them. In the end, the profound ambivalence towards - and dependence upon - sadism in Human Punk is a macabre indulgence that diminishes the novel.

Some reviewers of King's loose trilogy about football hooligans - The Football Factory, Headhunters and England Away - have written about them as if they were works of anthropology. It is true that they give voice to a type of working-class masculinity that is rarely heard in literary novels. It is also an unsettling fact that the thugs he portrays are not so different from the rest of us. However, Human Punk is not about verisimilitude. The novel is compelling, not as a study of working-class blokes, but as a highly mannered work of fiction. It may be King's intention to show the nihilistic uncertainty felt by English lads. The reader cannot know if this is the case because King has removed himself from the novel and speaks only through Joe. That in itself is not a reason to criticise his work. However, this act of self-effacement does have moral consequences: as it is Joe Martin's voice that we hear, rather than John King's, we cannot accuse the author of amusing us with - and profiting from - these brutal tales.

One could argue that the book's gruesome stories are not served up for our entertainment, but rather to illuminate the feral realities of macho life. This is the modern world, to paraphrase Paul Weller, and cosseted middle-class readers denigrate the portrayal of it at their peril. Such a view may be coherent, but it is not, in the end, persuasive. On a suspiciously large number of occasions in Human Punk, violence seems to be exploited for the vicarious pleasure of its readers.