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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, April 2nd, 2002


The Rotters' Club


A review by Stephen Amidon

The 1970s have become an object of such reflexive parody that it is often hard to look at those years as anything other than an opportunity for ridicule. Jonathan Coe's funny and astute new novel avoids this impulse to caricature as it traces the sentimental education of a group of teenage classmates in the much maligned English city of Birmingham from 1973 through 1979. Coe fills in this broad canvas with a series of comic set pieces that poke gentle fun at his characters while also deepening their appeal. In one, several boys team up to form an art-rock band with the hilariously Tolkienesque name of Gandalf's Pikestaff, only to see the group devolve into The Maws of Doom after the punk movement blows through town. When an auto-factory manager takes three employees to dinner in an attempt to avert a strike, the class distinctions between them are revealed in what they choose as accompaniments to the inevitable steak and chips: the boss recklessly orders "peas and mushrooms on the side" — "a touch of sophistication that was not lost on the others." Blue Nun is the drink of choice; the lyrics from Yes albums are dissected with Jesuitical zeal. And a family's wind-blasted, rain-drenched vacation in a camper park in Wales will ring true to anyone who has made the mistake of trying to take a summer holiday in the United Kingdom.

Coe's attempts to tackle more-serious themes prove less uniformly assured. His evocation of police brutality against striking factory workers reads like plain old agitprop, and his inclusion of the IRA's horrific Birmingham pub bombings in the narrative is awkward and ultimately bathetic. His treatment of the racialist politics of Britain's National Front, however, is wonderfully deft, as a student prankster lampoons the Front's bombast in the school paper in a manner that would have made Auberon Waugh proud. The contrast reminds us that the strength of The Rotters' Club lies in its comic humanity, not its anger. If Coe is right to claim that the 1970s were "brown times," then it is a testament to his skill that he has rendered them in such vivid colors.

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