ARTS ETC: BOOKS: Paperbacks ; Just Your Everyday Druggy Chinese-Jewish Film Fanatic: The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith PENGUIN Pounds 7.99

Article excerpt

It's probably telling that The Autograph Man is concerned with the deconstruction, and in the end the renunciation, of celebrity. But Smith's scope and her exuberant and already distinctive voice makes it read like far more than a hasty response to her life post- White Teeth.

The autograph man is Alex-Li Tandem, a Jewish-Chinese Londoner who deals in signed pieces of celebrity ephemera for a living. His holy grail is the signature of Kitty Alexander, a reclusive film star long since forgotten by the public, but revered by the rather tawdry and masochistic autograph dealers.

Every week since he was 14, Alex has been writing to her without reply. There is a prologue that will overshadow the whole book - and not only because it's the funniest and best written bit - in which the 12-year- old Alex collects his first autograph (Big Daddy) at the precise moment that his father keels over. After this, Alex wakes up as a 27-year-old, hungover from a three-day-long acid bender, to find Kitty's signature pinned to his front door. Over the course of the following week, he will try to determine whether it's authentic or whether he wrote it himself while high. This will involve journeying to New York in search of Kitty, in the company of a famous prostitute. He will also re-evaluate his relationship with his girlfriend of 10 years, his obsession with old movie stars, and his feelings towards his faith and his father. All the while consuming vast amounts of drugs and alcohol.

For all her determined and signature multiculturalism, Smith's more impressive feat seems to me to be her unnervingly accurate portrait of the male mind. With his arrested development, obsession with pop culture, self-absorption, uncontrollable horniness and fear of commitment, Alex would feel perfectly at home in a Nick Hornby or Philip Roth book. I don't really like him, but I do relate to him and believe in him.

He suffers from that perennial anxiety of the post-modern world, that there's nothing he can say or do that hasn't already been said or done. Having looked to the movies for guidance he's now undergoing a crisis of faith. Accordingly, the chapters of The Autograph Man are labelled by tenets of Judaism and Buddhism. Which is fine, but rather symptomatic of the excessive narrative, typographical and design gimmickry Smith deploys. But though her themes may be common, her protagonist unlikable, and her story a little far-fetched, on almost every page there is originality: a character-sketch, joke, or just a gleaming sentence, which will remind you that you're enjoying reading.


The Shadow of Boxing

By Geoffrey Beattie

ORION pounds 8.99

Before he was Professor of Psychology at Manchester University and Big Brother's resident body language expert, Beattie was a writer who chronicled the seedier side of life in the north of Thatcher's Britain. He used to hang out with the doormen in nightclubs, and train with them in Brendan Ingle's boxing gym in Sheffield, where he was also witness to the rise of Prince Naseem. The Shadows of Boxing tells the sad story of the intense, 17-year relationship between Naz and his trainer, and their acrimonious split, and contains a major scoop in Naz's first interview since he lost his world title. But it's also a book about Sheffield, about the effect Ingle and his gym had on the local community, both before and after Naz, about the psychology of boxing, and about violence. Beattie questions his attraction to the milieu he now revisits, while he chats with "Mad" Frankie Fraser, and remembers the killing he witnessed on a night out with Big Lenny the bouncer. But his peculiar double life does allow him a sophisticated insight into codes of masculinity, and the value placed on respect by everyone from the former champion, to deprived kids unable to command anything more tangible. …