A flutter on the Booker Prize ought to be a tasty bet. Not this year; the favourites' odds are short and the serious gambler will wonder if there is enough meat on the bone to justify a punt: Margaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin and Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans (reviewed in the LRB, 5 October and 13 April) are quoted at 2-1 and 5-2 with William Hill. And it's difficult to fancy the four other shortlisted novelists. Trezza Azzopardi's The Hiding Place - the 7-1 outsider and the only first novel on the list - is narrated by Dolores Gauci, a young girl whose Maltese father gambled away his Cardiff café on the day she was born. Frank Gauci is a weak, compulsive man who ignores the difficulties of his family and hides behind the pages of the Sporting Life. Azzopardi has a keen sense of the shame of poverty and the humiliation of having to make do; the novel's wide-eyed child-narrator, who retreats from the difficulty of day to day life to the safety of her imagination owes something to the narrators in Frank McCourt's memoirs. But Azzopardi's social criticism is clumsy: 'down at the Miners' Welfare . . . all they ever drank was Mild or Bitter, depending on how they felt.' And her prose sometimes strains to have an effect on the reader. In the McCourt house, people's teeth turned 'brown and black in their heads'. Dolores's friends haven't got teeth at all, 'just a row of brown stubs, like iron filings, top and bottom'. White Teeth, Zadie Smith's polished, attractive fictional debut (LRB, 21 September) didn't make the shortlist; it seems a shame.
Frank Gauci is happy to 'gamble on anything that moves', a problem for shortlisted novelists leading sedentary lives, but not for the impressive Michael Collins - author of The Keepers of Truth and a keen runner. As well as completing his novel, Collins has managed to finish a marathon. A jog through the streets of London dressed up in rhino costume wasn't quite challenging enough for him, however: he ran the 26 miles in Antarctica. (Kingsley Amis was satisfied to have come last but one in his school's under-twelves 440 yards: Booker contenders aren't meant to be that good at Games.) The set-up of Collins's novel is engaging. Bill is a feckless sports hack working on a rinky-dink paper in small-town Middle America. He gets to cover the local baseball team but hard news passes him by: 'television is where it's at these days. The written word is dead.' He loses interest in his job - 'I was like a goddamn baker selling day-old doughnuts' - until he hears about the murder of Old Man Lawton, a local troublemaker whose body has been snipped into pieces with a pair of pruning shears. Bill begins to investigate the murder and the case seems exciting; but the novel's plot is loose and the story soon flags. Collins falls back on the tired formulae and staple characters of crime fiction. Bill is at odds with an inept local policeman who makes a habit of missing the point - 'Why the hell am I always the last to know what the hell is going on?' - and during the investigation falls for a flighty, no-good blonde: 'Bill, don't lie to me. Men been lying to me all my life.' Bill's narrative voice has a cloying folksiness - 'Ordinary, that's what I looked like, just plain ordinary, but maybe ordinary was far more complicated than I ever thought it could be' - which only relents when he becomes earnest and ponderous: 'What compels people to go on existing on the dark side of night?' The Keepers of Truth has been surprisingly well received by critics, though the reaction from Collins's friends in the running world has not been as favourable. Steve Cram - Olympic medallist turned BBC pundit - was quiet on the sofa in Sydney this autumn, but couldn't be stopped in a far-reaching Guardian interview when asked for his thoughts on contemporary fiction: 'there's a lot of crap out there.' His opinion of The Keepers of Truth? 'A bit gruesome.'
LRB 2 November 2000 | PDF Download