To Heaven by Water

Herzog in Hampstead

For David Cross, the retired television journalist at the centre of Justin Cartwright's new novel, the line from Ulysses that gives the book its title
is a prism of meanings and associations. Like Leopold Bloom, David has been diminished by knowledge of his wife's infidelities but, with
ultimately destructive forbearance, he has held back from confronting her. Now she is dead, and their children, Ed and Lucy, are confused and hurt by David's apparent lack of distress.

Rather than assuming the muted aura of the recently bereaved, he has become a devotee of the rowing machine at his local gym (a running joke in the novel is that David's friends all assume that his new, trim physique is a symptom of cancer) and has abandoned his reassuringly conventional suit for a T-shirt and set of Masai bracelets. Behind David's "disturbingly nihilistic" behaviour, however, lurks a memory he cannot ignore, and cannot share: before his marriage, he drowned a girlfriend in order to save himself (she couldn't swim; he became panicked by her clinging to him), and his wife's death has brought the event back into terrible focus.

Meanwhile, both of David's children are adrift without their mother, looking to one another and, rather less fruitfully, to their father to take on her role within the family. Both are experiencing difficulties in their personal lives: Lucy is being stalked by a potentially dangerous ex-boyfriend and Ed's marriage is in crisis, with his wife staking her happiness on their increasingly doubtful ability to conceive.

The themes and motifs that give this narrative its texture will be familiar to Cartwright's admirers: the horrified focus on a middle-aged man's physical and moral decline; the frequent references to Africa, and in particular to the unworldly charm of Masai customs; the frankly prurient fascination with homosexuality (variations on the phrase "putting your cock up another man's bum" recur in several of Cartwright's books); and, most distinctively, the concern with the self-obfuscating nature of consciousness. Lucy "wonders if she has a self"; David, even as a child, "wasn't sure if he was real". Cartwright is very fond of these philosophical asides, and has arguably come closer than any other British novelist to achieving the kind of metaphysical prose favoured by American writers such as Philip Roth, John Updike and, above all, Saul Bellow, who seems the primary influence here.

To Heaven by Water employs the sudden leaps between first and third person that Bellow, adapting Joyce's technique, made his own, and echoes the tone of Bellow's lyrical-philosophical riffs. At times David Cross is even reminiscent of Moses Herzog, a character defined by his very lack of stability. In fact, the novel seems to make this comparison explicit when, about halfway through, David, who does most of his reflecting on long walks across Hampstead Heath, "wonders if he isn't going mad", but then decides that "if he is, he doesn't mind"; Herzog begins with its protagonist reflecting: "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me."

Some of the best moments come when the characters turn their observations outwards and Cartwright allows them amusing insights into contemporary London life. Talking to his boss, Ed "sees that successful people in the law and in corporations have an urge to acquire a philosophy, which conveniently explains why they are entitled to such a large portion of the world's riches". Lucy, wondering how best to deal with her unstable ex-boyfriend, observes that, "Once the police are involved, you are consigned to the ranks of the Untermenschen, who cause trouble, not necessarily by any specific crime, but by their generally anarchic life."

At other times, however, the writing is less sharp. As Cartwright's novels often are, the story is anchored in the recent past, and is studded with awkward period markers. David's friend Adam proposes a toast to "that nice Mr Brown, our new leader"; Lucy alights from the Tube at Piccadilly, "not far from where those doctors tried to blow up a nightclub". There is a glaring artificiality to these constructions, suggestive of the ulterior purpose of their presence within the narrative.

Much of the dialogue is, in fact, of a very ordinary quality. The characters churn out witticisms (Ed tells Lucy that she is "almost certainly one of the most attractive women in early Christian coinage") that seem limp and effortful on the page; incidental figures have their London locutions rendered in sub-Amisian phonetic spelling, while the younger characters work through a range of embarrassingly off-the-mark expressions (Lucy talks of her "cred", while Ed and his wife respond "Good God!" to the news of his promotion).

Cartwright is, on the whole, an extremely talented novelist, and there is enough good writing here to make reading To Heaven by Water an enjoyable and at times moving experience, but there are certain surprisingly underwrought details that prevent this from ranking among his very best work.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads