In 2016, David Szalay wowed critics and readers with his fourth novel, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted “All That Man Is.” More a collection of stand-alone stories than a novel, the book’s only weakness was its narrative confinement: Each tale, about a separate male character and his personal quandary or crisis, petered out too soon, leaving the reader in no doubt about the author’s talent but nevertheless wanting more.
A year on and Graywolf Press has capitalized on that book’s success by publishing Szalay’s first novel. Garlanded with praise when published in the United Kingdom in 2008, “London and the South-East” is, in a way, more satisfying than “All That Man Is.” It, too, concerns a man coming off the rails and struggling to get his life back on track, but as a feature-length drama and not a series of shorts, there is more room for characters to flounder and more opportunities for us to laugh, empathize and marvel.
Szalay’s luckless antihero is Paul Rainey. Going nowhere fast in his London ad-sales job, perpetually sleep-deprived, nicotine-addicted and “washed- and whited-out with drink and dope,” Paul is one day given the chance to turn his life around. After a “moral tussle” he agrees to defect to a rival sales firm and take with him six of his best workers.
Paul jumps and, unsurprisingly, falls. Sinking into deeper doldrums, he drifts and flails. He loses more self-esteem by sliding into unemployment and then menial supermarket work. He loses his partner, Heather, by being too drunk and aloof. A second stab at redemption presents itself, but again it involves grubby, underhanded tactics. Does he have the power to pull himself out of his rut? And what trail of damage will he leave in his wake?
“London and the South-East” is a stunningly accomplished debut novel. Szalay’s moods, tones and range of situations manage to be scabrously funny or desperately grim. Like Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton before him, his scenes play out in deliciously seedy locations — smoky pubs, dingy snooker halls, dirty streets and, for the climax, “Victorian villas honeycombed with loneliness.”
Again and again, Szalay takes Paul out of his comfort zone. We hop from one wince-inducing scenario to another, from a disastrous job interview to a dreadful blind date, a tense sales pitch to a toxic Christmas (“Yes, the festival of shopping oppresses him this year”).
Szalay’s cast of grotesques include feckless stoner Andy; “bluff and coarse, even brutal” Eddy; and long-suffering Heather. But it is ground-down Paul who truly captivates, whether seeking clarity and release from the suffocating fug of alcohol and despair, or just stumbling on through that “moral murk, where everyone was equally sullied.” During the many pub crawls, back stabbings and dodgy dealings, Szalay shrewdly examines loyalty. Is a friendship always “provisional, insubstantial, illusory”?
All writers begin somewhere. It is here, in this brilliant bittersweet tragicomedy, Szalay first showcased his prodigious capabilities.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
London and the South-East
By: David Szalay.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 340 pages, $16.