Fiction - Fockn' funny


Giles Coren <em>Jonathan Cape, 312pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0224074997

Giles Coren is an inimitable journalist. Recently, to publicise Winkler, his first novel, he wrote a brilliant piece for the Times about camping at the Port Eliot literary festival in Cornwall. The clouds unburdened "horizontal rain" - apt, as his novel ends with raindrops "lashing horizontally" - and the pile of Winklers he had brought got damp. In his diary, he wrote: "On the plus side, they now appear fatter than before, and thus even better value for your £16.99."

Coren need not have been so self-deprecating. Winkler is a fantastically funny novel, worth every penny of its RRP. Its style and subject matter can feel derivative (Philip Roth and Martin Amis are both obvious prototypes) but, overall, the book bubbles with inventiveness.

Winkler is the eponymous hero, a malcontent of Jewish extraction ground down and bored by his life's pointless routines. We first meet him on the Tube "rattling wordlessly to work", mulling over a prep-school cricket match played many moons earlier. Winkler went through public school fearful that his Jewish background would be exposed. He contrasts his own "imagined ancestry" - "bearded, thickset Poles with side-locks, in a wet shtetl, nodding over some Talmudic riddle" - with that of his apple-cheeked peers, each one, in Winkler's frantic imagination, the scion of a blue-blooded dynasty and able to trace the family's roots through umpteen generations back to the Norman Conquest.

After another banal day at the office, Winkler heads home. The place stinks as usual ("It was the smell of boiled head"). His fat Irish girlfriend, her every Ulster utterance peppered with "fockn'" this or "fockn'" that, isn't back yet - a fockn' hassle, as Winkler is locked out of their upstairs flat. For want of anything better to do, he pads down the stairs and bumps into Mr Wallenstein, the "old Jew" (as one chapter heading has it) "who lived under the stairs".

Unable to resist Wallenstein's offer of tea, Winkler follows him into his dim rooms, where "aureoles of light" bloom from candles, and listens to maggoty stories about his experiences as a Jewish resistance fighter during the war. At first, he is unable to concentrate, drifting off into reveries about the Tube at the mention of the word "underground", but soon he is spellbound by the tales of murder and mutilation.

The encounter has an immense impact on Winkler. He quits his job. He leaves his girlfriend. He smokes copious amounts of ganja, munches all sorts of pills, and snorts any powder that's going - cocaine, dandruff, "a clotted chunk of MDMA powder the size of a Monopoly house", even cigarette ash. He dances for the first time and pulls an Aussie who later sodomises him with a carrot. He masturbates in front of a blind girl.

Coren presents these haywire high jinks in clean, tightly ordered prose. Occasionally, he lets rip to heighten a moment, a punchline or the pay-off to a chapter. The onanistic episode with the blind girl is a case in point: never has there been such a brilliantly baroque description of pent-up frustrations and release. It all feels like a kinkier version of The Rachel Papers, except that, unlike Charles Highway, Winkler is 29.

Occasionally, the novel can seem puerile. Winkler's girlfriend,

for example, has an "old kit-bag" for a bum, a "Cheshire arse" that remains on the bed momentarily when she gets up. An even more tell-tale instance of schoolboy snickering is Winkler's name. It's a bit like calling your hero Richard Head.

Yet only a killjoy would chastise Coren too much. Sometimes

you snigger; at least his book makes you laugh. First and foremost, Winkler is joyfully entertaining. The prevailing mood is one of high farce. "The literary world does not know I am alive," Coren wrote, a little disingenuously, in his Port Eliot piece. It certainly does now.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, President Hillary: can she do it?