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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, August 8th, 2004


 

I'll Go to Bed at Noon

by

Suburban soaks

A review by Alex Clark

Depicting alcoholism in fiction requires a steady hand, and a clear head for sensing when lurid excess becomes as repulsive and dull in invention as it does in real life. But handled with care, the rewards are high, not least because the fictions that tend to cohere around addiction -- the grandiosity of need and satisfaction, the delusions and justifications of denial -- are so rich in ingenuity and conviction. For the Jones family, who were first sighted in Gerard Woodward's Whitbread-shortlisted first novel, August (2001), such fictions have become a modus operandi, vital to their rackety and compromised survival.

Colette and Aldous, mater- and pater-familias, conjure their determination to continue from a limited wherewithal. Colette has her own history of dependency to deal with, having previously developed and conquered a reliance on Romac, the glue from puncture-repair kits, and even now can only get to sleep with the aid of a few glasses of barley wine, her "wonder-drink", and a handful of Nembutals. Come the morning, and only another refreshing cup of fizzy wine can dispel her grogginess. It is unsurprising that she should need both sedative and stimulant to help her deal with reality, since the couple's lives have shrunk to the timorous tedium of anticipating, containing and recovering from the unpredictable rampages of their drunken eldest son, Janus.

Janus, a gifted pianist whose temperament now makes it virtually impossible for him to hold down even the most menial of jobs, thinks nothing of surreptitiously cutting out the bathroom pipes in order to pay for a few cans of Special Brew; of ransacking his parents' treasure troves for the same purpose; of flouting court injunctions and filching brains from hospital mortuaries. With his brother-in-law, Bill, a bohemian painter-turned-supermarket-butcher, he mounts imaginary expeditions to discover the source of the Limpopo, although his primary quarry is usually the mythical "Red Lion", whose "roars can be heard echoing about the eucalyptus and banyan trees". Barred from most of the pubs within easy reach of Windhover Hill, the fictional North London suburb in which the novel is set, and losing friends with each display of violent and capricious behaviour, Janus is swiftly moving closer to the margins of the respectable middle-class life to which the rest of the Jones clan stubbornly cling.

Woodward sets Janus's decline into lawlessness and self-provoked exile against that facade of respectability with impressive subtlety, evoking at the same time a precise sense of life in 1970s suburbia. Colette and Aldous's house boasts a music room, and they recoil in horror at the philistinism represented by a relative's bookless High Wycombe house, and yet their own home, under the onslaught of Janus's depredations, borders on the insanitary and slum-like.

Elsewhere, Colette's widowed brother, Janus Brian, slides into dilapidation by distilling all that his garden has to offer; when the tomato sherry and brussel-sprout whisky run out, he turns to a tin of shoe polish, hoping to extract its alcoholic essence with the aid of a kettle. It doesn't work, and Janus Brian's sole comfort is his insistence that his past simply doesn't exist, that memory is nothing but a dream. "Life must be real", insists Colette, "if I was making all this up, surely I'd make up a better life for myself". You can see her point; the demands of her family are a nagging distraction from the social and domestic pleasures that the creeping sophistication of the decade has to offer, with its parties garnished with sandwich gateaux and stilton mousses, its pubs transformed by bamboo, wickerwork and foliage, and its Sundays set off by sedate drives into London's leafy Home Counties hinterlands. In a section of the novel in which part of the family decamps to Tewkesbury on holiday, a less ragged life is glimpsed, one that, for Aldous, is defined by his ability to create and protect his own solitude. Colette's problem is that she has a foot in both camps and that, for all her terror and despair at Janus's solipsistic rage, she would quite like to join him. "You'd be happier if the whole world was drunk", rails Julian, the precocious youngest son who dreams of a gun with which to kill Janus, and he is not far wrong.

Gerard Woodward's narrative proceeds at a finely judged pace, its vivid set pieces exploding into the quiet flow of day-to-day living. In similar style, he carefully rations the novel's seductive moments of caperish humour and nicely modulated wit, balancing them with an intelligent and frequently moving sense of pathos. This is a clever and accurate mimicry of drunkenness itself, of its combination of sharp releases of energy and emotion and its sapping sense of self-exhaustion and diminishing returns. The drunken antics of the Jones family and their circle might not be much fun to live among, but in I'll Go to Bed at Noon their fictional existence capivates and appals in equal measure.

Alex Clark is a writer and broadcaster who contributes regularly to the Guardian.



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