Sound of silence

Cleaver

Tim Parks <em>Harvill Secker, 316pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0436205610

There must be a number of British writers who envy the mainstream recognition enjoyed by Ian Mc-Ewan. Perhaps Tim Parks is one. Ever since his 1997 Booker-shortlisted novel Europa, Parks has assayed the same feat that McEwan tried for size in Saturday - the attempt to transcribe in prose the workings of a man's mind. Yet while Mc-Ewan is sitting pretty near the top of the bestseller lists, Parks has never pulled off such a breakthrough with his fiction, even if his memoirs of expat life near Verona proved lucratively popular.

In his 13th work of fiction, Parks makes his most convincing stab yet at mimicking the switchback to-and-fro of thought. The sparking synapses he so credibly conjures here belong to Harold Cleaver, an "eminent and overweight" 55-year-old celebrity journalist (imagine a paunchy Paxman). Harry has recently reached the acme of his broadcasting career, making mincemeat of the American president in an interview watched by more than 50 million. When we meet him, however, he isn't basking in adulation in some inner sanctum of the Beeb, but hotfooting it from London to a tiny village in the South Tyrol. Like sev-eral of Parks's previous protagonists (the self-regarding hero of Judge Savage is a recent example), Cleaver is a middle-aged success story in meltdown, twitching through the throes of a mid-life crisis.

The trigger? His eldest son's Booker-nominated debut, Under His Shadow, a fictionalised memoir of his upbringing that is a thinly disguised masterclass in character assassination. Cleaver finishes it shortly before his rendezvous with the president, and the experience sours what should have been a sweet moment of triumph. Smarting from the slings and arrows of his son's vitriol, and suddenly convinced his life is nothing but dumbshow and charade, Cleaver decides that he must escape, and hunts out a remote Alpine hut where he hopes to clamber "above the noise line".

However, when Cleaver does stumble upon a snowbound hideaway, he finds that the noise only intensifies - inside his head. George Eliot spoke of the roar that lies on the other side of silence, and it is this cacophony of contemplation that Parks so masterfully approximates. Cleaver cannot relieve the indignation he feels towards his son; nor can he stomach the way that the book has been embraced by the chattering classes. Periodically and obsessively, he recalls phrases and whole sentences, most of which he instantly dismisses as devoid of literary merit.

In rebutting the barbs and accusations, Cleaver is forced to examine his own guilt. He must weigh up his philandering past (he has slept with more than 90 women), his bullying intellect and, most dam-aging, the preening self-importance that crushed his children's self-esteem. Mixed in with all this is his frozen grief for his beloved daughter, who died, pregnant, in a car crash while in her teens.

There is a pleasing substance to Cleaver's character and a heft to his vigorous mental energy that match his fleshy frame. What sounds like a deathly-dull premise - ageing bloke sits in silence in threadbare bolt-hole in the mountains - results in a scintillating and subtly nuanced narrative. The secret of its success? Masterful prose, just free-form enough to imitate the whirligig of thought. Parks deserves to take a bow.