In new Philip Hensher novel, a genteel town with an animal undercurrent

September 22, 2011

KING OF THE BADGERS

By Philip Hensher

Faber & Faber. 436 pp. $26

Welcome to Hanmouth, an invented British town on a picturesque estuary in Devon (cue rowboats in the mist). Hanmouth is conservative, class-obsessed and so adorably old-fashioned it still has milk delivery. There’s a butcher, a cheese shop, two garrulous spinsters with a yappy dog, and an active — some would complain overactive — Neighborhood Watch group. In his seventh novel, “King of the Badgers,” Philip Hensher delivers a taxonomy of the town’s absurdities and tensions so fully imagined that he even endows Hanmouth with its own endangered species of bird, the ring-necked pipit.

It will come as no huge shock to readers that all is not well in this sleepy hamlet. When 8-year-old China O’Connor mysteriously vanishes from her home, some townspeople marvel.“You simply don’t think of that sort of thing happening in Hanmouth,” but, of course, the girl’s hairdresser-mother and her drunken lout of a stepfather are not from the good part of town. The beginning of the novel capably chronicles the “air of reckless festivity” that ensues as journalists and police overrun the town. Everyone pities the O’Connors, until it turns out that the whole kidnapping was a hoax cooked up by the mother and her ex. Then the ex turns up dead — and China remains missing.

It’s the setup for a real potboiler, but Hensher doesn’t play up the suspense. Quite the opposite. Life must go on — so much so that we lose the abduction plot for a good part of the novel. There’s shopping and homework to be done, bills to be paid and, perhaps most important, sex to be enjoyed, both conjugal and illicit. In an op-ed piece for The Independent newspaper last year with the headline “The only gay in the village? Not quite,” Hensher celebrated the percentage of Britain’s population that is now out of the closet, and indeed Hanmouth, for all its quaintness, has quite a vibrant homosexual community. Must be something in the water: Even the most matronly of widows are discovering their inner Sappho.

A group of men who dub themselves “The Bears” meet for sex feasts complete with cocaine, and partygoers parade down the street in their kinkiest leather outfits. Much of the novel is given over to two contrasting parties: the staid happy hour at the home of retired newcomers Catherine and Alec and the boisterous Bear affair hosted by cheese shop owner “Gay Sam” and his lover, Harry, an actual noble whom the locals nickname “What-a-Waste.” Sam and Harry’s guests include Catherine and Alec’s fat, dispirited son, a writer of uproariously funny, nonsensical romance novels for Japanese readers, and his freeloading Italian friend.

Hensher’s adamantly omniscient narrator zooms into the minds of enough characters for a running head start on a Hanmouth census. We meet Miranda and Kenyon, unhappy upper-crusters with a killer mortgage on their manse. Kenyon keeps up a torrid affair with Ahmed, a Pakistani man whose son, inconveniently, is one of Miranda’s favorite students. (If you can keep track of the characters in this paragraph, you can read “The King of the Badgers” without getting too dizzy.) Miranda and Kenyon’s daughter is a spooky child who, if her elaborately staged doll funeral is any indication, wants to be a serial killer when she grows up; she seems about as marginal as China’s abductor, who rapes the child locked in his cellar every morning before trudging off to work.

“The King of the Badgers” cannot be accused of being short on details. For some readers, the novel may present entirely too much information. Perhaps we don’t really need to know that Catherine and Alec’s son, in the bathroom, “finished washing himself with the lavender soap, plunging and huffing and nose-clearing in the tub, like an oily walrus; he washed his hair with the last of the orange-flower shampoo, wetting his head by sliding backwards and putting his hair under the water, rinsing the foam off in the same way.” But much of the long novel is given over to such zealous daily minutiae, so it’s sometimes hard to keep track of the ingenious interweaving of the stories.

Hensher’s previous novel, the even longer “The Northern Clemency,” was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and won him comparisons to Jonathan Franzen for the ambition and breadth of his characterization. A more apt comparison might be the social satire of the late British novelist Malcolm Bradbury, who was also given to invented — but entirely recognizable — locales with allegorical heft. The title “King of the Badgers” comes from a 1965 children’s book by J.P. Martin, “Uncle Cleans Up,” that offers the same distinctly British kind of satire: savage, with a soupcon of tenderness. (In the kind of pun that Hensher favors, “badger” is also slang for a cruel person. Hensher, as creator of this particular cast of characters, cannot be accused of being touchy-feely.)

If Hensher is — for the most part — an equal-opportunity satirist, mocking rich and poor, policemen and pedophiles, he does seem to have a soft spot in his heart for the struggles of Britain’s last closeted gay men. Unlike Sam and Harry, who — despite the orgies — are as smug and predictable as their straight neighbors, Kenyon and Ahmed share the closest thing the novel offers to true love. And though hopelessly conventional in some ways, this pair also dreams of escaping the expectations of a place such as Hanmouth, unshackling their identities from “anything that could locate them within a thousand miles of any particular place.”

Zeidner’s fifth novel, “Love Bomb,” is forthcoming. She directs the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University at Camden.

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