Overtaken by Alexei Sayle

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When TV comedians announce that they're about to produce their first novel, the pulse doesn't always race faster. But perhaps some excitement is in order, as Alexei Sayle's first novel, Overtaken triumphantly demonstrates what wonderful results can be produced when the comedian is as skilled with words as Sayle is.

That acerbic Liverpool accent we know so well is always at the service of some sharp and surrealistic scripts when the hefty Sayle is on stage in those two-sizes-too-small suits, but his writing has already demonstrated that his skills don't just rely on that in-your-face personality. His inventiveness, his wildly surprising turn of phrase made Barcelona Plates and The Dog Catcher hilarious and bitterly entertaining. However, writing a full-length novel is a different ball game, and within a couple of pages, it's clear that we're in the hands of a real novelist, surprisingly closer to the fiction of David Lodge and Malcom Bradbury than the self-conscious wordplay of Ben Elton.

Sayle's hero, Kelvin, has slipped imperceptibly into his 30s, coping with an unexciting life in an insignificant Lancashire town. His greatest pleasure is the time he spends with his close friends. He joins them on artistic excursions, lapping up theatre, concerts and anything else that comes along. But relationships remain a problem for him, and Kelvin finds his life taking a sharp turn for the worst. And instead of enjoying various diversions with his friends, he finds himself grappling with some pretty thorny philosophical issues: the value of art, the redemption of the soul and the nature of happiness.

Sayle's particular achievement here is his wonderfully wry and quirky take on some demanding subject matter--this is a real novel, but the surface has all the corrosive wit and observation of the author's standup act. Kelvin is a marvellous creation: sad, funny, always human. If Sayle never treads the boards again, he's demonstrated pretty comprehensively that he can cut it in the literary field with the best.

Sceptre: 2003.
ISBN: 9780340767689. 288 pp.
Hardcover. Very good.