Observer Review: Who’s Sorry Now? By Howard Jacobson Essay, Research Paper
Take my wife…Who’s Sorry Now?Howard JacobsonCape ?16.99, pp325The perils and pitfalls of lunching at length in Soho are many, but for Marvin Kreitman and Charlie Merriweather, a Montecello-fuelled marathon that spills over into supper – their last, in many ways – and ends in St Thomas’s A&E, some 14 hours later, has life-altering effects.Kreitman and Charlie are middle-aged men with nothing much except themselves to worry about, and as different as two comic archetypes could be. Kreitman is dark, Jewish and ’squishy-hearted’, a former ‘Casanova of University College’ who long ago abandoned postgraduate research to take up his father’s mantle as the ‘luggage baron of south London’.Purses are Kreitman’s business, and he joyously exemplifies every Elizabethan double entendre and Freudian footnote, passing his days in an erotic haze in pursuit of his life’s other business, women and sex. Besides his wife, his daughters and his mother, Kreitman loves – at the last count – five more women, including the mother of his wife’s interior designer’s ex-husband.Charlie, meanwhile, is a pink-and-white type, hobbled by prep-school put-downs and still daydreaming about legs and nipples, even after almost a quarter of a century of wedded bliss. Charlie’s wife is Charlie (Chas), a romping giantess in a spinnaker skirt, and together they write children’s books, valiantly battling the return of ‘lower-middle-class magic’. But even fidelity has its fatalities and Charlie, it seems, is simply dying of ‘nice sex’, reduced to ogling teenage waitresses and beaming at any woman who’ll meet his gaze.The question neither has dared ask until now is this: which man is unhappier, he who stays home for nice sex, or he who keeps a woman above every bag shop south of the river? Not exactly Descartes, but for post-Viagra manhood, the answer must be of more than passing interest. To Charlie’s sozzled, Seventies mind, the only solution is a wife swap, and no sooner has the idea taken root than a Lycra-clad cycle courier named Nyman zips onto the scene, ploughing through Kreitman and his misgivings to play Puck in the ensuing marital merry-go-round.Comedy has always been a serious business for Jacobson, and throughout this darkly dappled triptych, tragedy lurks just over the page. It’s there in the life of Charlie’s father, a grammar school master who turns cartwheels and spends his final days quivering beneath the kitchen table in the wake of ‘comprehensivisation’; it’s there, too, in Kreitman’s mother’s second marriage to Norbert, a ‘mouse-man’ who had seemed the answer to her prayers until he fell victim to a stroke. Tears are the only alternative to laughter of this kind, and for all the fucking that goes on – and there’s a lot, both messy and metaphysical – tear-water is the bodily fluid that flows most freely through this novel, most of it Kreitman’s.Kreitman is a monstrous, mischievous mutation of Jacobson’s previous red-blooded anti-heroes, moved solely by his ‘umbilical’ interest in women. For him, sex is all about ‘murder and mayhem’, and yet he is a ‘clinically sensitive’ swooner, ‘a serial faller-in-love’, and he knows that he’s a dinosaur. It’s Nyman who is the real menace, that self-styled nowhere-man and veteran of reality TV whom Chas senses is ‘more rattishly and motivationally a man’ than Kreitman or puppy-dog Charlie rolled into one.Despite its title, Who’s Sorry Now? is a rich, unrepentantly funny novel, full of vim and vigour and bolshie cleverness. Its prose pulsates with fresh images, from the Spanish whore whose voice is ‘a bicycle chain lubricated with aniseed’, to the kind of jealousy that explodes in the stomach like a bagful of sherbet lemons, while a whiff of melodrama adds an extra element of farce.Clapham Common is, of course, a far cry from the Forest of Arden and in the end the Kreitman-Merriweather symmetry is skewed as their new-found bliss becomes just another once-upon-a-time. In the closing chapter, the narrative ambles off to be snuffed out by the swish of a mistress’s whip, leaving Jacobson to revel in the ‘wonderment of rude’.