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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Steeped in Melancholy BY ROGER BOYLAN The Light Of Day By Graham Swift Knopf 336 pages, $24. Graham Swift has an ear as well-attuned to the vagaries of modern England, specifically London, as any of his contemporariesthe Amises pere et fils, for example, those rambunctious satirists with the 18thcentury running in their veins. Swift is a satirist too, but he is a kinder, gentler than Dickensian. There’s an autumnal melancholy in his writing quite alien to the Amisescertainly to Martin, in whose work there surfaces only a ragged despair. Although Martin’s father Kingsley’s later novels had some real melancholy, notably The Old Devils and The People on the Hill, it wasn’t really him, it just came with age. But melancholia is Swift’s prevalent mood, the sunset feeling that carries through from The Sweet-Shop Owner to Waterland to the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders right through to his new novel, The Light of Day. Still, he’s a satirist too, asit could be arguedall major novelists must be, to a certain extent. Last Orders, which made Swift into a major novelist, brilliantly poked fun at, while showing deep respect for, a certain nostalgic leftover slice of the London that wasdownscale in social status and ambitions to be sure, but bristling with some of the sassy spontaneity of the old days of English urban life, of J. B. Priestley’s Good Companions, of the unflagging spirit of the Blitz, of that good old vulgar but life-affirming “I’m all right, Jack” working-class character. The fact that all these have become self-conscious tics is what makes Swift’s chronicle of them a satire, and what steeps them in melancholy is the fact that they’re disappearing fast, under a tide of uniformity and gentrification. Steeped in melancholy, too, is George Webb, the lovelorn police inspectorturned-private eye who narrates The Light of Day. Swift gives us his hero’s life distilled into a single day’s interior monologue. It’s a device that is something of a house specialty, as Swift also used it in The Sweet-Shop and Last Orders, and he sticks with it, I imagine, because it works. It dams the flow of the main character’s musings, which in this novel, as in real life, meander all over the place, from past to present and from contentment towell, melancholy. George’s thoughts are delivered in short sentences intended to resemble actual thoughts bumping half-formed into one another in the narrator’s mind. This technique can make for a tedious read when taken to extremesThomas Pynchon, Dorothy Richardson, the Joyce of Finnegans Wakebut in Swift’s hands it serves well, managing to be sufficiently eloquent to engage the reader’s imagination while remaining everyday enough for the ordinary everyday bloke that George is. However, George turns out to be a bit of an unexpected character under his everydayness: divorced, hard-bitten, and cynical, as you would expect of an ex-cop, but the cliches stop there. He is also deeply romantic, a fine cook, a sensitive father to his stubborn daughter, and madly in love with a murderess he helped put away, after delivering the goods on her errant husband. Crazy? Absolutely. He can’t explain it; he just goes with it. It’s what life has taught him to do: “Something happens. `Something comes over us: we say.” Drummed out of the force for “corruption,” i.e., not jumping through certain hoops at the right timeaggravated, to be sure, by his roughing-up of a particularly obnoxious suspectGeorge has become a private detective specializing in adultery cases. It’s a grubby existence, but it pays the bills, and he finds his clients, who are mostly women, to be usually desperate less for revenge \(“what’s what’s more, you’re a man. One of for simple understanding. And sometimes, it’s at the very moment they learn the worst that they most become your friend. They thank you for itthey even pay you for it… They’ve come to hire you to be their detective, to do this and do that, but before you know it what they most want you to do is give them a hug. On occasion George obliges, and those hugs lead to more than a few beds. He tries to live with such moral transgressions, but guilt follows him around like a demanding beggar. Then Sarah Nash, an English lecturer, comes to him one day and asks him to follow her husband Bob and his girlfriend to Heathrow Airport, where one or both \(she needs to know the piquancy of farce to this menage is the fact that her hubby’s a gynecologist and the girl’s their Croatian au pair. But this is no farce. This is about the mys 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10110103