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Nine monologues, each in a different voice, make up this unusual fiction debut. Sprout's flawless command of idiom, accent, and syntax here combines with a nuanced sense of race and class in contemporary London. The result is virtuoso stuff--masterly acts of literary impersonation. Not surprisingly, Sprout's subject is often language itself: failed communication, meaningless banter, silence. And all these narratives rely on reluctant raconteurs of one sort or another. There's the motherless young biker babe of ""Black Madonna Two-Wheel Gypsy Queen,"" a leather-and-spike type who can't quite figure out her brooding intellectual brother or her equally cynical old man. There's the Indian immigrant shopkeeper of ""A Small Difference,"" who thought he was speaking the Queen's English until harsh urban experience taught him otherwise. There's the old Irish construction worker of ""Almost Graceful Like a Dancer,"" who recalls the days when his countrymen brought blarney, not bombs, to London. And there's the boob of a bobby in ""Mistaken Identify"" (that's the real title), a doltish constable whose inability to read people and situations earns him a faceful of spit. If some of these stories seem all anecdote and affect, others expose the timeless truths that often lead to clichÉ (""Memory is a funny thing"" or ""People really do say amazing fucking things to each other""). In the title story--undoubtedly the best--a former skinhead seems to speak, in his thuggish way, for the author himself: ""I like to imitate people, take the piss out of them. . ."" It's also the one reminiscence that results in a kind of linguistic epiphany. Riding with commuters past a wall of trainyard graffiti that he drew in his early days, the narrator frightens himself; he can't believe that a bunch of brainless kids could have pulled a stunt that ""stuns the punters"" (i.e., scares the straights) and Incites hatred. Sproat feels compelled now and then to remind the reader that he's smarter than his narrators--he even puts a line from Wittgenstein in the mouth of a rummy! At his best, he manages to take the piss out of his subjects, and some of the vinegar too.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1986
Publisher: Faber & Faber