Tim Dowling is one of the funniest journalists around, with each of his pieces in the Guardian guaranteed to produce at least one belly laugh and further scattered smiles of appreciation. So much do one male friend and I enjoy his stuff, that our relationship has been reduced more or less to Sending to a Friend his articles as they appear, and subsequent exchanging of our favourite lines: and that’s how we like it. So when his byline began to appear less and less often over the last year, our thirtysomething male bonding looked to be in jeopardy. At least now I know what he was doing with his time.
In Dowling’s journalism, there has always been a welcome sublayer of middle-aged male angst, such as here (“I like to think that I have now passed through my midlife crisis and come out the other side (although this is not strictly accurate because I have discovered that there is no other side)”), so it was a relief, to me, to know that the subject of his debut novel The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club is a middle-aged humorous journalist – although this will be enough reason for others to slam the book closed before they’ve even opened it.
But as suburban, middle-class, comic novels go, this is everything we could hope for, a sort of Nigel Williams that doesn’t get boring halfway through. Giles Wareing is a man who has begun to feel that he’s not really participating in his life. He writes sycophantic puff-pieces about grotesque celebrities (“his novel covers several other themes, including gangsta rap, the post 9/11 zeitgeist and the redemptive power of fox-hunting”). He mends household appliances (“The microwave beeped and went dark. It was as if a little play about a rotating mug had come to the end of Act I”). He develops gout and is unable to refuse going on talk shows to discuss it (“I had dreaded the notion of becoming Mr Gout, but now that the title had been conferred I felt oddly proud”). He has erotic dreams about women who call at the door to try to get him to switch electricity suppliers. He feels detached from his sons, whom he refers to as “the older one” and “the younger one.” And of course, he worries about getting older:
“I’m forty,” I said quietly. This was not even strictly true; I was still thirty-nine, but with less than a month to go I had made a decision to meet inevitability halfway, to attack forty at a run. It was supposed to help me conquer the fear, but in truth I’d only given the fear a four-week head start. Every time I said, “I’m forty,” it was like pitching a stone into the pit of my soul just to hear the echo; incalculably distressing, but oddly habit-forming.
His main vice is vanity-googling (when he enters the letter G in his search engine box, it springs up all his previous searches: “Giles Wareing +funny,” “Giles Wareing +great,””Giles Wareing +moving,” “Giles Wareing + respected”), which leads him to a dark corner of an internet forum, where he discovers a talk thread calling itself The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club. Here, various netheads attack Wareing and his work, egging one another on in their mockery of each article of his that appears in print. Wareing, of course, cannot resist the corrosive effect of reading their splenetic rebuffs, occasionally joining in, and trying to find out who these haters really are…
All of this leads to a well-handled farcical plot involving clandestine dog-walking, murderous painter and decorators, addiction to prescription drugs (“Could it be that I had spent the last few months being insufficiently paranoid?”), stolen mobile phones, and an extreme right-wing pro-motoring lobby (which Dowling has satirised before):
“And now we’ve reached the point where we’re all meant to believe that every other person is homosexual,” said Robin, “when in fact the opposite is true.”
“What do you mean,” I said, “by the opposite?”
“Exactly what I said.”
“That every other person is a homosexual?”
The book also strains toward things more profound, about dislocation and priorities, about kindness and a sense of proportion, and it’s impossible not to wonder whether some of the angst does, for a journalist who has just produced his first novel, have its roots in truth:
I will aim to become a better writer, of longer and more serious things, with the ultimate goal of rendering all criticism of my work, be it Internet-based or otherwise, laughably wide of the mark.
Oh give over, Giles – I mean Tim. Just keep us smiling and all will be well.