Culture club

Smashing People

Michael Fishwick <em>Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0224061283

The title of the publishing director Michael Fishwick's first novel is a punning allusion to The Great Gatsby: "They were careless people . . . they smashed up things and creatures." Like F Scott Fitzgerald's classic distillation of the jazz age, Smashing People draws on the immoralities of another decadent decade - the Greedy Eighties. Fishwick follows the fortunes of a group of fashionable undergraduates at Oxford into the equally unreal world of literary London. They spend the next ten years falling in and out of business and bed with one another, happily demonstrating the incestuous possibilities of well-known university circles at that time.

Wilf, the novel's jaded innocent, lands a job on a "small, intellectually respectable but commercially dismal arts magazine" - with a little help from its owner, Ferdy, his long-time girlfriend's father. Ferdy wraps his Mercedes around a tree and the magazine is bought by Wilf's lifelong rival, the fatally charismatic Jimmy Spalding, who surprisingly offers our hero the editorship. Wilf rises to the challenge - and, in true boom-bust tradition, makes a horrible mess of it, wrecking his relationship in the process.

Fishwick's glittering jeunesse doree are tainted by their association with the sinister Spalding, and the niggling question of his involvement in Ferdy's death tugs at the narrative. These thrillerish elements lend the comedy pace and shade; while slapstick set pieces, such as a drunken riot and wedding fiasco, obscure the more subtle social satire.

The cultural context, convenient to a morality tale about the human cost of ambition and success, is otherwise anachronistic, despite a so-called Eighties revival. Rocketing advances and conglomerate takeovers, fogeyish magazines and Soho drinking clubs - publishing isn't all that different today. And Wilf's worries about his "blokeish hopelessness" and emotional inadequacies are essentially Nineties neuroses. Wilf's wiser, first-person retrospective repeatedly reminds us that "it was the Eighties" and crudely sets the stage, in case any of us missed the finer points: "It was the hour of the entrepreneur: the Falklands had been won, Labour had given birth to the SDP . . . Thatcher was trashing the miners and the creator of wealth was the new hero of the business and features pages."

London's literary scene just isn't very sexy, so Wilf is packed off to New York to provide the prerequisite glamour. Fishwick pays lip-service to the stock yuppie images - "power shoulders, power breakfasts and power hair" - but, unlike the American brat pack or English novelists writing at the time, he fails to tell us anything new. We've definitely been here before. Even the names of the staff on Arts Unlimited - the literary editor Terry Smallish, the adman Adam Sale and the diminutive Sibella Smallwood - sound familiar.

None of the characters is nearly nasty or vulgar enough. Like all the friends, Fishwick himself is admiringly in love with his villain, and he seems to look back on that selfish era with more nostalgia than abrogation. The outcome, in keeping with the times and the characters, is morally ambiguous: Jimmy and his wife, like Fitzgerald's Tom and Daisy Buchanan, "retreat into their carelessness and let everyone else clean up the mess".

Fishwick has an easy, engaging style, and it is hard to dislike his hapless hero. His insights into life on a "dilapidated but august magazine" are authentic, although his heart is obviously with the publishing business, represented in the exploits of Wilf's amiable best friend, Milo. Insiders will enjoy spotting real-life prototypes. But, as with other recent media romans a clefs, readers outside the gilded square mile of Golden Square might wonder what all the fuss is about.

Lisa Allardice is deputy arts and books editor of the NS