GABRIEL'S LAMENT By Paul Bailey Viking. 331 pp. $17.95
Here we have yet another gifted and accomplished British novelist who has been infrequently published in this country and whose reputation here is to all intents and purposes nonexistent. Paul Bailey has won the usual raft of prizes in England -- a Forster Award, a Maugham Award, an Orwell Prize -- and has been warmly praised by English critics, but it has been a decade and a half since one of his novels appeared in the United States; like Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Jane Howard before him, Bailey is overdue for an American readership.
But whether he will find one with "Gabriel's Lament" seems to me highly problematical. It is a fine novel -- smart, funny, imaginative, and in the end it delivers some genuine surprises -- but its quirks and eccentricities are of a decidedly British cast. Like Kingsley Amis' "The Old Devils," which unfortunately does not seem to have caught on over here, it is a talky novel, and though little of the talk is in dialect, much of it sounds slightly foreign to American ears.
It's worth working one's way through these chatty Anglicisms, though, because "Gabriel's Lament" is a quite original and provocative piece of work. On one level it is a comedy, featuring a garrulous old man named Oswald Harvey who puts one in mind of the cranky gents Sir John Gielgud has been playing in advanced age; on another it is the poignant coming-of-age story of Gabriel Harvey, his son, a misfit whose search for self-understanding is complicated by any number of unusual considerations.
The novel opens when Gabriel is a lonely young boy and closes three decades later, when he has found success and a degree of happiness but is still troubled by his parents' bizarre legacy. They are an odd couple, his father past 60 and his mother three full decades younger, and a poor one, living in an unprepossessing London neighborhood. Then an unexpected bequest comes his father's way and they move to a moderately fancy house -- called Blenheim, an irony that escapes his father's notice -- and into an entirely new life.
But a bad life, as it turns out. Oswald is transformed by wealth from a boozy storyteller to a social pretender, a lecturer whose hand-me-down snobbish pieties infuriate his son. Then Gabriel's mother suddenly leaves, ostensibly on holiday, and never returns. Her disappearance becomes the central event of Gabriel's life; his obsession with her, his longing to find her and be in her arms once more, consumes him.
At 17 he leaves his father's house and takes employment, first as a sorter in the postal office, then as "skivvy" -- "I sweep and scrub and polish" -- in an old-folks' home. He seems always to be among the old, whether at work or in his boarding house; he is an old young man, unconnected to people his own age, devoid of romantic connections or interests, "living on the outside of things."
Finally he finds a project that engages his attention: writing a book about "cranks and visionaries -- and charlatans, too" who were Gabriels of another sort: as obsessed with the Lord as Gabriel is with his mother. After being turned down by many publishers, the book -- "Lords of Light" -- finally is issued; it becomes an immense success after one of its chapters is adapted (and wildly distorted) as a rock movie called "Mersey Messiah." His sudden fame brings Gabriel an invitation to lecture in Minnesota; it is there, months after his father's death, that Gabriel confronts his legacy and at last begins to understand who he is, and why.
"Gabriel's Lament" is an unexpectedly powerful novel, all the more unexpectedly because its force is contained within the velvet glove of humor. Not merely are old Oswald's lectures amusing -- his tirade against suede shoes especially so -- but Gabriel, for all his obsessiveness, is able to step back from himself and take a wry look at the "odd little man" that is himself. As he well knows, he is odd enough all right, but no odder than the rest of us; it is Paul Bailey's ability to make us identify with Gabriel and his oddities that gives the novel immediacy and poignancy.
"Gabriel's Lament" is too quirky and too "British" to find a large American readership, but it may well prove the sort of book that finds a small but intensely loyal following. Certainly Bailey is too accomplished a writer -- both as prose stylist and as storyteller -- to be unknown on this side of the Atlantic.