The return of Essex Man

One For My Baby

Tony Parsons <em>HarperCollins, 330pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0002261820

Tony Parsons's previous novel, Man and Boy, the heart- warming story of a single dad and his cute kid, was so successful that, if all the copies sold were laid end to end, they would stretch from Islington in north London to Billericay in the wilds of suburban Essex. And back. Twice.

All right, it's not Land's End to John o'Groats - but if you picture that quadruple row of books stretching along the verge of the A12 for mile after mile, it's fairly impressive. The total print run of my last novel, strewn in a single line, would barely reach from my front door to the end of the street; arranged in four rows, it wouldn't even get to the next lamp-post.

Bearing this comparison in mind, my opinion of Parsons's sure-fire follow-up is clearly worthless to anyone except connoisseurs of sour grapes, but there you go. One For My Baby is narrated by Alfie Budd, an Essex boy pushing 40, who now lives in "one of those tall white houses in Islington" with his parents. The family has moved to medialand because Alfie's dad, a former sports reporter, has written a heart-warming and bestselling memoir about his poor but happy wartime childhood.

The book sounds more like Angela's Ashes than Man and Boy, so if there is any authorial self-mockery at work, it is slight and ambiguous; besides, Alfie's dad is suffering a block and cannot produce a sequel, whereas Parsons has hurdled that particular inhibition with no trouble.

Alfie is not one of those people who never leave home. He has come back from teaching English in Hong Kong, where he met and married the woman of his dreams, an expat lawyer called Rose, only to lose her in a tragic scuba-diving accident.

The story charts Alfie's recovery, from self-pitying uselessness to a more mature outlook. He gets a job at Churchill's International Language School in the West End, has transient affairs with various sexy foreign students, sees the error of his ways and strikes up a sensible, responsible friendship with Jackie, a thirtyish single mum who wants him to tutor her through English Literature A level so that she can get into university.

Returning Jackie's first essay, Alfie says: "It's full of some teacher's opinion. Or some critic's opinion. Not enough of you." Jackie smiles and tells him: "You're good . . . You're a great teacher. You're so right." It's a common problem for novelists: the main character becomes the author's little pet self, and then other characters fawn on him or her in the most unlikely fashion, and the ones who don't are exposed as baddies.

The dialogue is on the clunky side. Essex kids and grandmothers offer pearls of wisdom. Posh people deliver snide put-downs. Jackie's lines are pure male fantasy, always affirming her toughness and independence, but at the same time reassuring Alfie that he is wonderful. Alfie recites moralising little speeches to anyone he meets. Only two characters, both knuckle-dragging drunks, react by thumping him. If you read his speeches out loud, you may think he gets off quite lightly.

Although Parsons conceals it with casual sleight-of-hand, he makes repeated use of outrageous coincidence to move the story forward. Some of the plotting is lazier still. We are treated to the old surprise party gag, where the lights come on and the birthday boy is caught in a compromising situation; but it doesn't work, because the illicit blonde involved happens to be someone who absolutely must have known about the party, and who would not let herself in for such embarrassment.

The narrative style punches above its weight, relying on short sentences and repetition to make it seem more interesting than it is. "Left to my own devices, I would have nursed a Tsingtao in Lan Kwai Fong and looked at the lights. Left to myself, I would have vegetated quite happily . . . Rose took me deeper. Rose took me beyond the lights. As she did so, she turned affection into something more. For Hong Kong. And for her."

After a while, you go through a sort of pain barrier and this stuff becomes bearable. The book still feels about 100 pages too long, but many readers will like it because it reminds them of their own bust-ups and bereavements, and it will sell enough copies to carpet the Great North Road from Highbury Corner to Doncaster.

PS: For the end-to-end calculation, I took the publisher's figure of 720,000 copies and assumed 20cm per copy, or 5,000 copies per kilometre. I think it's about right.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?