Scary then

Happy Now

Charlie Higson, writer of The Fast Show and star of many of its sketches---“running jokes" seems a better name for them---wants to be taken seriously, or at least sinisterly. Hence Charles rather than Charlie, and a threatening gilt-on-black cover, showing the white face of a sort of Chisely Higson peering at the prospective reader between the tines of a toasting fork. Granted once you know the significance of the fork then a tremble is put in the bowels by the image, but by then you'd have made the minor error of reading the book.

Should the cover not give it away, Happy Now is a thriller. It's based around the lives of a number of middle-class fuckups who interact messily and inappropriately. Tom Kendall is a borderline Asperger, adrift on a sea of suppressed rage and misery that he cannot understand, let alone verbalize; yet he tacks the course of a normal life until struck broadside by Will Summers. Will breaks into homes, with the goal of a sexual frisson rather than any malice. But when he is discovered during a dinner party at the house of Tom's brother-in-law bloody violence ensues. As Tom's sanity unravels, so do most of the aspects of the book.

What this novel expertly captures is the core of self-hate that is meant to sit at the heart of middle England, a sort of Guardiangst or Daily Mourn that, if it doesn't really exist, is at least embodied in such vacuums as Milton Keynes or Slough. Early pictures of Tom are rich and detailed, but when we discover that his extreme reactions stem from a childhood of extremes---a lump of indigestible Freudianism thrust at you in case you're reading this undeniable page-turner too fast to notice it---then the book loses its edge. Tom is no longer normal enough to seem abnormal in this shadowy world of Manicheaen thrillerisms.

This book just about predates The Fast Show. Plenty of the subsequent sketches are more subtly twisted and dangerous than the story here. It would be better for Higson if nobody mourned the passing of Happy Now into obscurity. You don't need to be a raving fan of the TV series (and its offshoots) to be willing to grant Higson the credentials of a gifted, populist writer, but after finishing Happy Now it's difficult to remember precisely why you thought he was so good in the first place.