THE MAKING OF HENRY
Jonathan Cape, 12.99
WHEN you try to analyse what makes people laugh, the results are seldom amusing. Howard Jacobson explored the anatomy of the funny bone in his book and television series Seriously Funny, and caused anger as much as amusement by apparently suggesting that women can’t take a joke. As a broadcaster, newspaper columnist and author (Booker long-listed for his last novel, Who’s Sorry Now?), Jacobson has placed himself firmly at the acerbic end of the humour scale; the sort of person you either love or loathe.
I fully expected to hate The Making Of Henry, but by the second or third page I was being won over. By page 16 I was laughing out loud - and I kept laughing until the end of this warm, tender and hilarious novel. Forget the theorising - Jacobson is screamingly funny.
The hero is Henry Nagel, a former lecturer in English literature, now pushing 60 and looking forward glumly to a lonely old age. He has never married, having preferred, when in his prime, to seduce the wives of older colleagues. Alas, "the thing about older women once you’ve reached Henry’s age is that there aren’t any". So his erotic ardour has cooled into "pictorial curiosity", as he savours the fine details of unknown women he has no chance of sleeping with.
One such woman is the waitress at a caf near his flat in London’s St John’s Wood. Forty-something, eastern-European looking, she becomes the reason why he goes back repeatedly, tipping monstrously until at last, "at eight pounds a Russian tea and a tenner per cup of Viennese coffee", she notices him. To his own amazement, when he propositions her, she accepts. "Still doing it," the deliciously ironic narrative lacerates. "Senior railcard in the mail and he is still asking women back to his place."
Chance plays its part. Henry’s next door neighbour, a 94-year-old woman, has recently died and her stepson has come to take care of things. He is Lachlan Louis Stevenson, of similar age to Henry, given to unstoppable belching and claiming improbable descent from the great writer. He asks Henry to attend the funeral, where the only other mourner turns out to be the waitress, Moira, who used to deliver cakes to the deceased. From this unlikely meeting, their affair begins.
Moira, Lachlan and Henry are all misfits, all failures of one kind or another, but all believable and engaging in their flawed way, and it is around these three that the whole novel revolves - or rather, these three plus Lachlan’s dog, Angus - something else for Henry to get grumpy about. Attempting to pat him, Henry gets his fingers slobbered - "like putting his hand into warm trifle". Cajoled into walking the geriatric dog, Henry is disgusted by its undiminished enthusiasm for cocking its leg. "What kind of life is this... where piss is all you ever think about… piss to sniff, piss to ponder, piss to piss on." But Henry realises that he is no better than the dog - only more tired.
If this simple tale of three people and a pooch were a Hollywood movie, it would be all about the redemptive power of love. Henry, the curmudgeonly old rake with a twinkle in his eye - played perhaps by Jack Nicholson - would finally reveal a heart of gold.
Jacobson’s novel, however, is a lot smarter than that. The whole book is a joke at Henry’s expense, told from his point of view, yet "solipsistic Henry" never feels sorry for himself, nor asks for pity. Rigorously avoiding sentimentality, Jacobson opts instead for something far more uplifting, which is honesty. In movies, Henry complains, "the merest reference to our fragility sets us off. Say mummy, daddy, baby, love-you, dead, goodbye - and that’s it, you’ve got the whole auditorium snivelling." Jacobson keeps his finger off the tear-jerk buttons, and keeps them on the laughter buttons instead - even when Henry goes in search of a good place to be buried. The blandly utilitarian place where his neighbour was cremated would do - a "Milton Keynes for the dead". Henry surveys the prospect of his own demise with a cool eye.
His affair with Moira serves as counterpoint to Henry’s own thoughts, and it is in his mental raking through the past that we find the book’s best moments. Henry’s Jewish upbringing in Manchester (reflecting Jacobson’s own) is laced with farce. His mother’s idea of cooking was "dropping cans into boiling water and then forgetting them until the water boiled away and the kitchen filled with the smell of roasting metal. Eventually the cans exploded - that was how you knew the meal was ready." Henry’s father was a children’s party entertainer - "origamist, illusionist and fire-eater". "People have seen our garden," Henry’s mother complains, surveying the scorched earth and boiled goldfish pond. "Nothing will ever grow there again for another thousand years."
At times, Jacobson’s comic riffs take on the surreal quality of an Eddie Izzard monologue, piling on ever greater layers of absurdity. Henry’s teaching career is a gradual process of mortification, in which he is exiled to a part of the building where nobody can find him, "like the mad wife in the attic, only he was in the cellar".
Most of all, he cannot escape the memory of his late father - they have long imaginary conversations in which the father invariably triumphs. Henry is also haunted by his schoolmate ‘Hovis’ Belkin (nicknamed for the shape of his head), who went on to become a Hollywood director. Henry’s envy of him has fed an emotional vendetta that has partly shaped the course of his life, and Belkin provides the book’s subplot.
Really, though, this is not a book that relies much on plot - it looks backwards more than forwards, and most of all it looks at life with an eye informed by experience. To Henry, it seems that the whole world is a "conspiracy of the young"; a party he has blundered into, only to find that everybody else is already somehow acquainted with one another, and he knows nobody.
In the dead old lady’s flat, he reads lines by Robert Louis Stevenson: "Under the wide and starry sky, / Dig the grave and let me lie. / Glad did I live and gladly die, / And I laid me down with a will." The Making Of Henry is a book that has one foot in the grave, but dances joyfully all the same - a celebration of the ruthless indignity of ageing that is resolutely life-affirming.
Andrew Crumey’s new novel is Mobius Dick