British bonfire, with Thais and lions

July 27, 1993|By Rebecca Mead | Rebecca Mead,Newsday

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The scene is the trading floor of a large bank in a major financial capital. A cocky young trader has come into the office early in the morning, intending to work on a big overseas deal from which he is confident of earning bags of money. A shoe-shine man is making the rounds, and stops at the trader's expensive footwear; the trader contemplates the lowly shoe-shiner's balding pate from his lofty vantage point -- little realizing that before the morning is out, the threads of his own life will have begun, drastically, to unravel. Any minute now, he too will be at gutter level.

Chapter 11 of Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" -- wherein Sherman McCoy reads the first newspaper report of his own transgression over the shoulder of Felix the shoe-shine man, right?

Well, yes; but also Chapter 7 of "Look at It This Way," a new novel by London-based writer Justin Cartwright (author of "Interior," among other novels) in which Miles Goodall, a banker in the City of London, sits at his desk with Bob the shoe-shine man bending over his feet and begins to realize that something has gone horribly wrong with the business he's been conducting in Singapore. A mishap has occurred that will cause him to lose his home and his girlfriend, to become involved with a gang of East End Thai kick-boxing aficionados and drug dealers, and ultimately to suffer a fate far more grisly than that which befell Mr. Wolfe's Master of the Universe.

Scenes such as this have caused some in the British press to hail "Look at It This Way" as London's "Bonfire of the Vanities," though in fact the comparison doesn't do Mr. Cartwright any favors. (If it's a sweeping portrait of late-'80s malaise in London you're after, read Martin Amis' "London Fields" instead.) This is a far smaller novel than Mr. Wolfe's, though an intricately worked one, with finely crafted vignettes of life in the Smoke, as Londoners call their city.

Several plots are woven together in "Look at It This Way": There's the story of Miles, the fallen city boy; that of his ex-girlfriend Victoria, an account executive at a groovy ad agency; and that of Tim Curtiz, an American journalist living in London who writes a biweekly column for a New York magazine about the habits of his adopted countrypeople. Victoria has tapped Tim to appear in a credit-card advertisement, but the two are to be linked by more than professional bonds.

Then there are the lions -- several of which slink through the book, bringing characters together in curious ways. Tim becomes involved with an elderly Londoner who was once famous for having killed a lion with a penknife; the deadly kick-boxer with whom Miles gets mixed up is known as the Young Lion; a mangy lion in the London Zoo, scheduled for euthanasia, escapes, throwing the city into king-of-the-jungle fever.

The lion theme -- these descendants of England's proud Lion Rampant, emblazoned on the royal crest, now as bastardized or battered as the inhabitants of this once proud kingdom -- is cleverly managed. Less successful is the characterization of the main figures in the book, most of whom remain strangely sketchy. Victoria's physicality, for example, is repeatedly evoked mentions of her brown lips, as if, like the Cheshire cat, she were nothing but a smile.

But Mr. Cartwright, who was born in South Africa, has an unfailing eye for the melancholy squalor of London and those who wander its streets. He's at his best in lyrical passages describing "this strange city, with its pinched faces and veinous noses and small eyes and runaway arses and tallow breasts, with its nooks and crannies, its shabby whores, its lamenting brickwork, its vomit-strewn streets, its dribbling skies and its inexplicable smugness." What would Brian De Palma make of this, I wonder?

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Look at It This Way"

Author: Justin Cartwright

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 247 pages, $21

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