Saturday, March 04, 2006

KING OF THE ROAD by Charlie Williams

Serpents Tail, February 2006, ISBN 1852429062, £7.99

Royston Blake is back. After spending some time in Parpham Asylum, Mangel's premiere doorman is back and this time he's determined to do the right thing. Yes, Royston Blake is finally facing up to his responsibilities. After all, he has a baby, now, and little Royston needs a proper father figure in his life, someone who can make sure that little Royston grows up to join a respectable professional like being a doorman. Or, if little Royston is a girl, she can cut hair: girls have dreams too, you know.

Blakey - as he's known to his mates - is one of the most unaplogetic protagonists in crime fiction today. Violent, misogynistic and deeply disturbed, he's an impressively complex character who at once repels and attracts the reader. For all his violence, he has an undeniable charm and a strange innocence that pulls you into his world. As with the previous two books in the Mangel trilogy - Deadfolk and Fags and Lager - you are alternately appalled by and forced into sympathy with this arrogant yet oddly vulnerable hardman.

While Blakey has been our guide through previous (mis)adventures in Mangel, this book is absolutely concerned with who Blakey is, was and will be. Its a subtle change in focus, but makes sense when you look back on the trilogy as a whole. Deadfolk was an introduction to Royston and Mangel, while Fags and Lager explored the world of Mangel and its complex, twisted world in more explicit detail, exposing the rot at the heart of the forgotten English town. Now, with King of the Road, we find our attention focussed on Blakey. This change in focus is signalled by the interludes in the main narrative which were previously provided by clippings from The Mangel Informer and now come to the reader in the form of interview extracts from Blakey's stay in Parpham. As the narrative unfolds from Blakey's cocky, confident world view, we see another side to our hero as he tries to avoid the truth about who he is and maintain his increasingly fragile self image. As the book progresses and Blakey finds himself unable to escape certain truths, we see him commit darker and more violent acts and yet somehow he retains our empathy and we as readers have this need to see him triumph against the odds.

On another level, Williams has also subtly switched genres again. Fags and Lager can be read on some level as a PI story with Blakey solving the mystery of who's been supplying Mangel's youth with drugs. He is hired by a client and finds himself drawn deep into conspiracies. Although his payment - cigs and booze - is a little unconventional. In King of the Road, as the newly released Blakey finds himself drawn into local conspiracies and hired by an underground movement to reclaim Mangel for local folks and fight back against the new mall that has been errected where Blakey's old stomping grounds used to be, we find that Williams has written a dark and twisted caper novel. But in a town like Mangel and with a protagonist like Blakey, this is like no other caper you've ever read. And certainly no other caper novel could reference Rocky IV and make it sound like a life lesson to be learned.

Like the other books in the Mangel trilogy, King of the Road employs the use of certain noir standards and uses them to create this twisted world that is still idetifiable with our own. More than ever the world of Mangel seems off-kilter and perhaps slightly fantastic and yet it still remains grounded in the darkest shadows of modern small town Britain.

The trick that Williams employs is one of misdirection. To the unobservant reader (Let's say, Alfred Hickling of the Guardian who once said Fags and Lager deserved to be given community service as penance for its yobbery) it seems as though the world of Mangel and Blake are defined by unrepentant acts of violence. With not one resident of the town seemingly questioning the life they lead, it may appear as if the Mangel trilogy is celebrating lives punctuated by petty violence and crime. But Williams is a smarter writer than that. Yes, somehow he makes you care for a man whose worldview is limited, mysogintsic, violent and petty, but he never once makes you wish you were Blakey. Blakey's life is a bad lot and Mangel's premier doorman is making the best he can of a bad lot.

This book is not simply about the rotten heart of Britain, about the depression of a town with no future. Its simultaneously about how such a place can affect one man, how it forms a character such as Blakey. Not a bad man, per se, but a product of the insulated place he comes from. By the end of the book, there's the possibility that Blakey and Mangel are more interconnected than one may ever have realised before and when everyone says "nobody leaves Mangel" there's a feeling its a far deeper statement than you might have ever realised before.

And for all of the darkness and depth of this book it remains, like its predecessors, laugh out loud funny. Its a dark humour and one that evokes pain as much as belly laughs. You can be laughing out loud one moment and gasping in horror the next and you know, all the time, that Williams is complete control of your reactions.

King of the Road confirms Charlie Williams as possibly the best British writer working today. He is the ideal adult humourist - someone whose jokes kick for the gut and often say far more than you realise upon a first reading - and he is also an astute modern commentator, someone with something to say about the darkness than is modern life in Britain today. We all know someone like Blakey and we all know somewhere like Mangel.

But only Charlie Williams could make us want to stay.

Russel D McLean for, March 9, 2006