Before we go a step further, know that I think Tim Lott is a tremendously under-rated English writer. If his novel Rumours of a Hurricane had emerged with Ian McEwan’s by-line, it would have been sitting on the front desk of Waterstone’s for the last five years. Similarly, White City Blue, his tale of London lives and loves, would have been made into a film starring Hugh Grant by now if it had come out under Nick Hornby’s moniker. Who can say why one writer of a similar quality does better than another? All we can do is look at who becomes a household name and who does not and then gauge signals, like the fact that Lott has moved from Penguin to Simon & Schuster, and wonder if he was pushed or whether he jumped.
His latest, Under the Same Stars, revives many of the themes and issues of his debut, The Scent of Dried Roses, dealing as it does with depression and its effect on families. We first glimpse our narrator Salinger Nash, who lives with his girlfriend Tiane in Tokyngton, a nondescript north-west London suburb, knocking back Prozac in his bathroom. ‘They were not happy pills,’ he tells us.
‘They did not make him happy. They rendered his life supportable. They fended off madness by reconfiguring synapses.’
He receives a phone call from his brother Carson and we start to learn how fragmentary his family life has been. Carson lives in the States with his wife and the two of them have been trying for children, unsuccessfully, for some time. Carson informs Salinger that their father – who neither of them has seen for years, the man running out on his kids when they were only young – is ill, and would Salinger consider flying over to the US to pay him a visit. Scene set, Under the Same Stars moves firmly into Englishman abroad territory by way of skewed American road trip.
The brothers don’t really get along – Salinger is a typical Guardian reading Englishman of a certain age, Carson is a fairly typical religious Republican – and certain tensions seethe beneath the surface as they make their way across country. There is a lot of driving and a lot of eating and a lot of sleeping uncomfortably in hotels and motels. We are treated to some pretty good travel writing that calls to mind Hari Kunzru’s own attempt at writing a great American novel, Gods without Men. Superficially, it’s all a bit ‘been there, seen it, done it, bought the t-shirt, wore it until the arms fell off and the decal faded’. A great many of the things that you expect to happen, happen as you might expect (Salinger’s girlfriend hints at discord in the airport before he leaves and it’s pretty obvious what is going on, the interaction between Salinger and his dad runs pretty much how you would expect it to) – and the point comes when you can’t help but feel a little disappointed by the paucity of the vision.
Jonathan Coe calls Under the Same Stars ‘epic in scope and packed with wonder and surprises’ which I don’t really agree with. Coe also says, however, that the novel is ‘full of rueful wisdom’ and this is true. There are several moments, particular towards the end of the book, when I felt like Lott was getting to something, was mining a genuine grain that was well worth exploring. In the moments where the boys come to learn of their father (he was good for the first thirty years of his life but then he wanted more, he wanted more for himself, and whilst this is selfish because it hurts people, it was a decision he made and stood by to the very end) and in the reluctance to paint the characters into a corner where all is well forever, Lott demonstrates those skills that really set him apart. Here he is talking about Carson’s face, for example:
‘He looked so young; younger than Salinger. Like Dorian Gray, except that it was Salinger’s face on the painting. Violence, bullying, cruelty – they didn’t corrode the soul, they protected you against corrosion, thought Salinger. They made you feel better about yourself.’
Under the Same Stars, then, is not a perfect novel by any means and it isn’t the best novel Lott has written but he is a novelist who warrants an audience and who warrants continued support from a big publishing house. The things that are wrong – such as the naming of the characters (you can’t help but feel that Salinger wouldn’t let people call him Salinger if the name came from his hated father – he’d be Sal to everyone, including himself) – are distracting certainly but the mechanics of the book are such that you read on and are for the most part entertained.
Any Cop?: If you haven’t read anything by Tim Lott before I’d recommend you start with Rumours of a Hurricane. If you count yourself a fan, read with our cautious recommendation.