Kings Of The Roundhouse, by John Preston (review)


John Preston       Kings Of The Roundhouse   Viking  £16.99

Characters in John Preston novels have identity crises. Not crises about who they are, but crises about whether they have any identity at all. In Ink, Preston’s brilliant second novel, the central character was Hugh, a journo who had all but lost the will to write, but who found himself embroiled in a search for a crisis-torn yachtsman based on Donald Crowhurst.

Five years later, here comes Preston’s third novel, Kings Of The Roundhouse. The central figure is Edmund, a young auditor, an overweight sadsack sent to sort out the anarchic balance-sheets of The Roundhouse. The Roundhouse, the iconic ex-railway building which hosted acts like The Doors in the sixties, grew gradually more decrepit in the seventies (and closed for most of the eighties and nineties). Edmund, like Hugh in Ink, has an opinion of himself so low that it is off every social gauge. The Roundhouse and its last, festering employees provide a comic backdrop for Edmund’s tribulations, and for Preston’s constantly inventive, powder-dry wit.

Preston excels at writing about gormless characters in decrepit settings. The first third of his new novel is a lost luggage department, full of hopeless cases. It is set in “the seventies”, although Preston knowingly sticks the whole decade into one blender, and comes up with a three-day week (1972) in the winter of discontent (1978) – dates are variously located as “the mid-1970s”, after Harold Wilson, and even ‘197-’.

But that he plays fast and loose with chronology is excusable. What interests Preston is the opportunity to tell us offbeat stories. Most of his scenes are surreally just out of kilter, anyway. If the plot of Roundhouse is slightly less secure than Ink, the quality of the writing – especially the dialogue, at which Preston is the most skilled of his contemporaries – is superb. He can flense through to the funny-bone with a single sentence (“the sky was streaked with vermilion and Lincoln green, like a side of condemned bacon”); his parodies of human behaviour draw as often on really acute observation as comic exaggeration.

Preston’s other talent is to make readers sympathise with wonderfully colourless characters. Edmund’s pathetic crush on Lia, a soft-porn peddler’s daughter, and his rivalry with Barney, a fantasist who is ‘king’ of the Sanilav-leaking rock venue, are all related with a brutal but benign interest in the figures themselves. Preston is agreeably fond of even the most wretched of his creations.

Roundhouse changes tack in its second part, whistling us through eighties and nineties via a series of press-cuttings (brilliant send-ups) and radio transcripts. The final section, set now, sees Barney and Edmund vying for Lia, trying to turn the rickety tables on one another, with Edmund having risen with agreeable tracelessness to a position of wealth. Here Preston continually trumps himself, producing minor characters from the first section at every turn, and creating weird and wacky tableaux. As with Ink, you emerge from Roundhouse breathless with suppressed laughter. Every detail requires you to give not two, but three hoots. Preston is a natural.

From The Independent