Short, fat and shy, the protagonist of Adam Mars-Jones’s latest novel doesn’t have much going for him; even his name — Colin — is unprepossessing. He’s just 18 when he meets an older man called Ray, who is the ringleader of a biker gang in deepest Surrey. The year is 1975 and the bikers are part of a burgeoning postwar subculture of overtly butch gay men. Enthralled by Ray’s rugged good looks and easy grace (‘the only person I’ve ever seen who could turn a page wearing leather gloves and not fumble’), Colin becomes his live-in lover and a kind of mascot-cum-communal sex object for his pals, attending their regular poker nights in the capacity of obliging receptacle. It all seems a bit too good to be true: ‘Ray’s smile was beautiful, but it made me uneasy. I couldn’t see what I had done to deserve it.’
There’s an endearing anti-glamour to this novel, from its geographical setting — the bikers live in suburban locales rarely featured in contemporary fiction, such as Woking and West Byfleet — to its affectionate evocation of the cultural landscape of the 1970s — a world of shandies, Wimpy, Advocaat, obsolescent British-made bikes and the word ‘naff’.
Some of the treatment endured by Colin makes for decidedly uncomfortable reading. The relationship is exploitative and abusive — Ray tells him he only took him on because ‘No one else would have you’ — but the novel’s wry subtitle, ‘A Story of Low Self-esteem’, takes this as a given. What’s intriguing here is the conspicuous lack of reproach in the narrator’s account; his