The 16-year-old hero of David Nicholls’s fifth novel is ostensibly Everyboy. It is June 1997, the last day at dreary Merton Grange and, having flunked his exams, Charlie Lewis attends the leaving disco — all dry ice, vomit and snogging, laced with Cointreau and disinfectant. An infinity looms of bloated summer days, with only a part-time, underpaid garage job as distraction. Home is a small southern English Everytown, neither city, suburb nor rural village, with Dog Shit Park and Murder Wood ‘where porn yellowed beneath the brambles’. Worse, Charlie’s parents have separated, and he is stranded with his depressed, boozy, bankrupt father, eating cold curry from takeaway foil containers.
An unglamorous atmosphere is familiar Nicholls territory: his first novel, Starter for Ten, starred a skinny, spotty, insecure student; the Booker long-listed Us featured a dull middle-aged husband whose marriage is coming apart; and Understudy depicted the miseries at the grubby bottom of the acting pool.