Giles Wareing, a freelance journalist, is days away from his 40th birthday, pretty sure he has gout and otherwise minding — well, monitoring is perhaps more accurate — his own business, typing ‘Giles Wareing funny/brilliant/clever’ into search engines. When a perverse impulse leads him to try some less flattering adjectives he discovers the Haters: ‘A lifetime of inchoate paranoia gelled.’ On a specially dedicated chat site every article he writes is held up to scorn and ridicule and, worse still, psychological analysis. This is enough to accelerate anyone’s midlife crisis, and Wareing’s progresses with delightful precipitation. As his paranoia worsens, so do his friends, and although it occurs to him that he is too old to be getting into the wrong crowd, he is soon surrounded by some appalling characters.
Tim Dowling has the touch of Kingsley Amis in reproducing boring conversations with awful accuracy, and the more his hero offends those around him, the more one likes him. There is something about Giles Wareing that makes even his descriptions of fixing the dishwasher hilarious and the excerpts from his slapdash journalism are perfectly pitched: just bad enough, and, also, just good enough.
Dowling keeps up a strong narrative thread in The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club (Picador, £14.99) and never for a moment loses sight of his primary purpose and talent: to be amusing. This is a wonderful book.
Marie Phillips, too, is very funny. In Gods Behaving Badly (Cape, £12.99) she has moved the Olympian gods to north London, where they squabble among themselves and try to hold down modern jobs; Apollo is a TV psychic; Artemis (hunting, and chastity, and the moon) walks dogs; Dionysus runs a night club; Aphrodite’s phone sex is out of this world; Athene has been reduced to a verbose bluestocking whose wisdom the rest of the gods find too boring to listen to; Eros is trying to become a good Christian but finds it hard with a mother like Aphrodite. The gods’ power is diminishing and must be used sparingly; Apollo, rather profligate with his, is put under oath to mend his ways, but this becomes difficult when Artemis hires a cleaner.
The gods’ interaction with mortals is brilliant, divinities casually assuming superiority, humans assuming they’re mad or awful or both. Most of the gods find their roles alarmingly sidelined in the modern world, though Hermes is busier than ever, running the world’s economy and escorting the dead to Angel tube station — Charon has switched his boat for a train.
The story moves with crazy pace — Hermes, also god of coincidences, is helpful — but never becomes annoying or confusing. The necessary mythology is filled in rapidly and casually in conversation, so it doesn’t matter how much or little the reader knows about the Greek gods; knowledge will only confirm that Phillips has captured their childish irresponsibility perfectly while amusing her readers with an unlikely successor to Hercules and a touching human love story while she’s about it.
The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton (Doubleday, £10) heralds the début of a brilliant writer. This is far from being your average tale of Oxbridge decadence. The characters are glamorous and extreme, and a lesser writer might have found it difficult to maintain credibility, but Stourton’s narrator has enough acumen to scrutinise his friends while stopping short of over-analysing them. The narrative switches effortlessly between the roofs and cafés and parks of Cambridge and the claustrophobic flat of the protagonist ten years on; the plot could easily have seemed formulaic but Stourton’s skill keeps the story from descending into melodrama. The writing is elegant, and bold similes combine imaginative description with original psychological insight. Stourton is a storyteller with perfect poise.
In Adam Foulds’s The Truth About These Strange Times (Weidenfeld, £12.99) Howard is a fat Scotsman with a criminal record; Les and Barbara take him into their home, whereupon he makes off with their son Saul, 11, a memory champion in the making. Howard is completely useless and can’t hold down a job as a towel attendant in a gym; over-worked, over-achieving Saul has never seen anyone like him, and yearns for the freedom he imagines that Howard has at his command. A touching relationship grows between them as Howard gives Saul a break from his matrices and binary sequences and begins to realise quite how much trouble they’ve got themselves into. The characters work well together: the child’s superior intelligence is balanced by the superior experience of the fat man, thus enabling a friendship to grow on equal terms, a new experience for both of them. There is an amusing cast of minor characters — Alfonso, a chip-shop owner and boxer, Hassan, an offensive co-worker who looks like a fridge, and a gaggle of friendly Russians who get Howard embroiled in a nerve-racking scheme of their own. Foulds is too gentle with his gentle giant, but perhaps that is really what we want for our weirdos and misfits.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 8, 2007