Dour, sardonic Ernest Cotgrave, working-class North-of-England lad, fends off schoolyard bullies by telling them grippingly offbeat, wildly improvised stories (""I've got an uncle who lives in a room full of clocks""). And as Ernest grows up, his storytelling becomes not only his defense against all real-world threats but also his profession--tale-telling (wearing his trademark leather coat) in pubs, later on lecture circuits: ""The fifth-year-olds wanted orgies and flagellation. The twenty-year class craved straight stuff, as long as it was all clean and proper sex. The women hoped for a bit of porn as well."" An intriguing premise--but in trying to wrest a whole novel out of it, Sillitoe (Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Widower's Son) belabors what could perhaps have been a dazzling short-story or a fine, Thomas Mann-like novella into a bit of a drone. We hear a good deal of Ernest in action--some of his stories are grittily involving or amusingly gross, some just drab. We see him fighting with pub drinkers, arguing with student audiences about the social utility of his storytelling, getting advice from an older storyteller who sold out. We learn a bit about his teenage work in a plywood factory, his rocky marriage, his rough adultery with collier's wife Eileen. And we get rather too many reiterations of Ernest's angst (""there was iron in Ernest's heart,"" he's ""scarred within"") and his psychic dependence on stories: ""To continue living, he had to turn into a story himself. . . ."" Eventually, however, a jot of linear development does take shape: Ernest is being followed (or thinks he is) by Eileen's murderous husband Bernard, who even shows up on the slightly surreal sea-cruise for which Ernest is the hired entertainment; and, after Ernest tries to kill, then escape from Bernard (apparently a total delusion), he ends up overboard and is finally taken over by a woman who ""showed him how to negotiate the treacherous by-ways of illusion and reality with the sacred proportion of intelligence and humor."" Too heavy-going and literal for a fable, too vague and contrived for a clinical case--an odd, overwrought reworking of an essentially familiar writer's theme, with enough of Sillitoe's North-of-England spit and specificity to provide intermittent charms along the way.