A hip, hard-luck Londoner hops aboard a train and ponders how his life derailed.
Cook’s bulky, witty, but often maddening first novel opens with some high drama: It’s Christmas Eve 1999, and the titular hero is very drunk and boarding a train heading to northern England, determined to kill himself once he reaches his destination. But that moment of reckoning is a long way coming: As the train moves forward, his mind casts back across his previous three decades on Earth to excavate the source of his self-hatred. Some of it has to do with his stepfather, who was an abusive horror to Byron and his mother (the depth of that is withheld till the tail-end of the book), his go-nowhere job in a music shop and a flagging nascent career as a poet. In his best moments, Cook describes these personal catastrophes with ready access to the wit and lovelorn-hipster tone that marks Nick Hornby’s books, paired with Irvine Welsh’s street-wise black humor. The novel’s biggest problem, though, is Byron’s biggest problem: Mandy, the woman with whom he’s just ended a disastrous three-year marriage. She enters the book as the leader of an up-and-coming rock band. But her character eventually becomes a one-note harridan prone to violent rages that leave Byron bruised both emotionally and physically. Cook is wise to have his hero explore the intersection of abuses past and present, but Mandy is so simplistically hair-trigger that Byron’s insights tend to read more like a litany of misogynistic complaints. It’s easy to keep rooting for Byron by the time he reaches his destination, but it’s been an exhausting, repetitive journey.
Cook has smarts and observational talent to spare, but this novel needs characters nuanced enough to justify its length.