Thursday, 15 March 2012

London and the South East by David Szalay

I picked up David Szalay’s London and the South East on the strength of a review of his latest novel, and once again I am grateful that the vagaries of the library catalogue meant that I had to choose this one instead.

Paul Rainey is a dissatisfied ad salesman, hurtling into middle age and incipient breakdown, aided and abetted by the booze and cannabis that he uses to keep himself going through the day. When he gets an offer of a much better job from his old colleague Eddy Jaw, he finally thinks that things might be going his way. Unfortunately, it would appear that the salesman has been sold down the river. When he turns up late and hungover for his first day of work at Eddy’s company, Delmar Morgan, it quickly becomes apparent that the whole thing was a setup to lure Paul’s sales team away from their present company. Without Paul.

Alcohol drinks as a way of life started for Paul, he supposes, in the Northwood days. Simon was a serious drinker. They would get drunk at lunchtime every day, and then go back to the Cheshire Cheese after work. That the pub was so quaint made it seem unserious somehow. And everything was going well – money was being made – the boozing was exuberant, not morose. Now when he is sober, there is always a sense that he is waiting for something. Walking out of Delmar Morgan, Paul’s first thought had been of alcohol drinks. It was eleven, and the pubs had just opened. In truth, part of him had started thinking of alcohol drinks the moment Eddy had said, “There isn’t a job for you here, Paul.” And a part of him had – if he is honest – even been pleased to hear those words. He had immediately felt licensed, permitted, almost obliged, to go out and drink until he was very drunk. There was nothing to stop him doing that anyway, of course – he had money – but he was not the sort of uninhibited alcoholic who pours beer, or mixed a Bloody Mary, first thing in the morning. He did not have – as George Best was said to have had – a wine bar by his bed, so that waking in the middle of the night (probably still in his clothes, lights burning silently all over the house) he could top up his blood-alcohol level before passing out again. Paul’s alcoholism still operated within limits – very substantial limits – but limits nonetheless, and to exceed them he had to have, he insisted on this scrupulously, a reason. Of course, he could always find a reason – and he always did – but it was nevertheless a sort of luxury to have a real reason; and terrible misfortunes, disasters, vicious setbacks and disappointments, were superbly fit for purpose. His shock and humiliation, his stunned sense of collapse as he walked down Victoria Street, were entirely unfeigned. His legs were trembling under him. He felt awful, weepy, as if he’d been beaten up, and he entered the first pub he saw, which was the Albert.

It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. He now has Christmas to get through...

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