Novel of the week

Woke Up Laughing

Jon Stephen Fink <em>Jonathan Cape, 345pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0224044095

Propelled with gusto out of the arse-end of lad lit, Jon Fink's fourth novel is a one-handed read for those who should know better. Then again, doesn't all lad lit veer between the onanistic and the anal, between the oh-so-sensitive man-boy musings and the shag-'em-while-you-can mentality of middle-aged men wearing trainers?

Fink's novel is based on an idea that would probably be better employed to galvanise lazy sixth-form students writing their first story: winning the Lottery. The 42-year-old Harris Wheatley has won a sum not much short of a million, but guess what? He wants to keep it to himself. He doesn't want to share it with his ordinary wife, Lynne, or his eccentric artist mother, Rosemary. Wheatley would rather whittle it away on spurious investment schemes, prostitutes and other forms of glamorous seediness about which the disillusioned office sop has hitherto only fantasised.

Early in the novel, we are told that Wheatley has "no imagination", and the author certainly convinces us of that. The problem is not so much that Fink can't tell a story; it's more that there isn't much of a story to tell. There's a basic background sketch of Wheatley's domestic set-up - a sexless marriage, a cot death - all thinly spun as a foil to the degenerate desires that his windfall has fomented.

It's not long before the hapless Wheatley hooks up with Terry Garland, a property developer specialising in health clubs, massage parlours and three-in-a-bed romps. Here, the novel pans like a soft-porn movie, and there's enough cavorting - or, in Wheatley's case, thwarted cavorting - at least to ensure that the narrative has an awkward energy.

But it soon fizzles out in creaking dialogue and limp set pieces worthy of a page-stuck almanac for disenchanted males. And I think we've had enough of those for a while. When Wheatley realises at some point that money won't buy him happiness or sexual fulfilment, it's only surprising that he doesn't up sticks and head for spiritual enlightenment further afield. Instead, he attempts a reconciliation with his wife, and there are some moments of drama and poignancy here, though they are scarce and quickly submerged.

Whether the book is another jaded contribution to the middle-age crisis/fantasy genre, or is intended as a pastiche (if only), doesn't really matter. Either way, there's nothing here that you haven't seen before.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The people take to the streets again