"So I saw this bloke in the street, and the back of his anorak was leaping up and down and people were chucking money to him. I said, 'Do you earn a living doing that?' And he said, 'Yes, this is my livelihood'." Not a gag that makes an appearance in The Comedy Man, but it could, with its flavour of the lost generation of English comedy - surrealism plus craft, storytelling plus compassion - the era between music hall and Monty Python that is inhabited by Arthur Upward and Ted King, the two comics of D J Taylor's novel. "How would you describe yourself as comedians?" a TV Times interviewer asks them. "Us? We're funny comedians. That kind . . . the sort you could take your wife to see. Even leave her there, if you wanted to." That's Upward talking - the streak of cruelty identifies him.
Taylor wanted to write a comic's autobiography. Wisely, he didn't make this Upward's book, but King's: his account is the more companionable, the more honest, not by any means the less funny. As the straight man, King has wasted less of his life on the psychic ephemera of fame-seeking; when the duo's TV contract is not renewed at the end of the Seventies, Upward takes it far harder. Some of Taylor's dramatic ironies ring true: it seems entirely inevitable that the short, fat, funny man should have a fatal heart attack during the recording of their comeback show ten years later, while King - partnerless, tall, gloomy, bemused, passive in a very English way - is left to give us the benefit of his examination of the threads and ghosts of their rise to brief and brittle celebrity.
I will admit to having not much enjoyed Taylor's fiction in the past. For not greatly enjoying, read "getting bogged down in": overcrafted, overmannered, it seemed too constructed to disarm me with its hallmark English social realism. Yet I have wanted to like his books, as an extension of my admiration for his tenacity and his belief in the literary racket. I like his outspokenness, the owlishness of his opinions, his one-man defence of the importance of Literature, cap L - a stance so often feebly adopted with a career in mind, or with that revolting relativistic, third-way half-heartedness. (Yes, books are important - just as telly is important, or football. Utterly missing the point that writing is one of the things that is worth getting out of proportion.) For a number of years, he wrote journalism, novels and a couple of books about the English novel, while holding down a job in the City penning business reports. The publication of a well-received biography of Thackeray liberated him. Such vocations demand a handsome dose of faith.
A novel that somewhere near the beginning asks the question: "I wonder if you can imagine what it was like to be the son of a small shopkeeper on the east coast of England 40 years ago?" - and proceeds to tell you the answer in unforgiving detail is not likely to rouse a new warmth in me. Yet when Taylor gets into his stride, it was that very scrupulosity of portrayal which eventually won me to a new respect. There are passages in The Comedy Man - for example, King's wooing of Mary Parmenter, the farmer's daughter in the hand-me-down dress, or his working in the Sun Alliance office in Great Yarmouth - that gleam with life's youthful aimlessness.
His immersion in the how-it-wasness of life in 1950s and 1960s England is spot on, simultaneously nauseating (the unencouraging parochialism, the towering stupidity) and compelling of affection, because it's just not possible without it - without those interminable days of national service, clerking, dismal excruciating bus-shelter courting - to understand why the English are as easy to fuck up as we are. And Taylor enjoyably shows how our efforts to escape, like Upward and King's, tend to involve an element of insane behaviour. (This, I think, explains why our children drink more and do more drugs than children in the rest of Europe.)
Sweeping the English past, re-examining it from the present - King's life in Plumstead, south-east London, a backdrop of Thames barges, thuggery and retail parks - The Comedy Man gradually, and thoroughly, is a rather successful modern novel, showing, with Orwellian precision, where our overvaunted modernity came from, and (not badly either) what it's like: precious little proof that we have more fun now than we did then.
Julian Evans is a literary critic and travel writer