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Book review: Death of a Ladies' Man

DEATH OF A LADIES' MAN Alan Bissett Hachette, £12.99

CHARLIE Bain is the kind of man who sees a lady with her legs crossed as a challenge. An outrageous, compulsive flirt, he is a serial womaniser, but one who considers himself loftier than the average. He rolls his eyes at the dull Glasgow hardmen he sees in pubs, chatting about football and shagging while dressed in their hetero-safe clothes. He, meanwhile, is a mother-loving, Chaucer-quoting, evolved and sensitive soul who prefers to use bookshops and libraries as his hunting ground. Intelligent women find themselves strangely powerless under his forceful eye contact, or inappropriate late-night text messages.

On the other hand, men, whom Charlie views only as a resource for gaining better access to more women, probably want to deliver a tightly packed punch to that megawatt smile of his.

It's all fun and games for Charlie, who spends his days teaching high school English literature, and his nights hoovering up lines of coke with Nadine, his man-eater art school pal. When life stresses him out, the showreel in his mind flashes up scenes of the illicit, urgent sex he had the night before, where he was able to lose his inhibitions in a painkilling rush of lust. But chinks are starting to show in his camp, and carefully chosen suit of armour. Ghosts of girlfriends past are coming back to haunt him. They visit him as he smokes joints in the boyhood room he moved back to at his mum's house after his divorce.

With "the snarling wolf of adulthood at the bedroom door", 30-year-old Charlie's weapons in the fight against old age are indie music, drugs and strings-free sex; although, like Nadine, who is slowly coming unhinged before his eyes, he worries that he too might be freefalling into a premature midlife crisis.

As paranoia and angst start to seep in, Charlie morphs slowly from John Updike's Darryl Van Horne character in The Witches Of Eastwick into something more reminiscent of Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham in American Beauty.

Behind the themes of 21st-century masculinity, the fear of having to grow up, and the lust for fresh conquests that constantly bubbles away, Falkirk-raised Bissett pipes in a very west coast Scottish soundtrack to the action. Songs from The Twilight Sad, Arab Strap and Zoey Van Goey play in West End cafes or on his iPod, and trips to Primark and Ashton Lane let Bissett zoom in on a very Scottish study of gender roles and modern love. As well as narrowing his focus to the west coast (Edinburgh gets ungraciously snubbed a couple of times), he also wants to rewind the clock to the late Nineties. Although this, his third novel and the follow-up to Boyracers and The Incredible Adam Spark, is set in modern-day Glasgow, Bissett, like Charlie, who is locked in his adolescence, feels drawn to the past for clues about the present. There's a strongly nostalgic feel to his descriptions of teen house parties or Buchanan Street shopping trips, skilfully mixed in with Charlie's cringeworthy attempts to shoehorn himself into "yoof" culture.

At points, Charlie's juvenile Readers' Wives fantasies about curtains-open sex with girls in red lingerie dilutes an otherwise intelligent and frissoned look at what drives people to seek out sex with strangers. Likewise, militant soapboxing about feminist theory, or sniggering chats about slang words for "front bottoms and foo foos" come across as childish and naive. It's a relief then, when Charlie tries to move beyond the schoolboy titillation at girls kissing other girls towards what his schoolteacher colleagues would probably call "grown-up" thoughts about what he actually wants from his relationships.

Unlike Charlie, Bissett speaks just as openly and insightfully to men as he does to women. Here both sexes are guilty of being hopelessly vain, craving compliments and letting their insecurities run riot. There is no punch-pulling when he looks at Charlie's struggle with fidelity, and his hunger for approval either, and his characters are coloured in with real believability. Playing with typography and using passages where the narration switches to film script direction, Bissett proves himself to be a fresh, compelling and distinctly Scottish literary talent.

Looked at one way, he has pulled the sheets back on Lothario men and shown them lying there wriggling, pathetic and bare-bummed. But by exposing the base, seedy desires that throb through the heart of his young male lead, Bissett also reveals his own knack for undressing human weakness, and making it fun and enlightening while he's at it. For his readers, this can only be a turn-on.

 
 
 

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