(milder spoilers than the blurb)
You may or may not know of Robert Rankin. He has written a lot of books, but the days when a new release by him was more than a passing mention seem to have, well, passed. That was less true when I was young, and The Antipope is a big part of why, for it was the launch of one of the great comic fantasy series.
I call The Antipope comic fantasy, but that has always been a loose banner of convenience hung over a number of very different works, and that’s no different for Rankin’s debut (he likes the term far fetched fiction). It reads like a love letter to the tall tale and the shaggy dog story, and also to the ever-scheming heroes of British sitcom from the last century. It’s easy to imagine the characters here rubbing shoulders with the Likely Lads, or with Norman Stanley Fletcher or Del Boy. That’s a very specific set of references to say the least and I sometimes wonder how the book would do with people not raised on such things. In any case, this is a fantasy book that doesn’t always feel fantasy in terms of following the genre’s conventions.
The heroes – or perhaps antiheroes – of Rankin’s tall tale are Jim Pooley and John Omally, a pair of chancers bumbling their way through life in 1970s Brentford. Jim is a romantic, a dreamer, easily swayed and forever looking for the perfect bet on the horses; John is an opportunist, a ladies man, a hard headed rogue who prefers living on his wits to a more regular lifestyle. They lead a cast of put upon publicans and crazy inventor newsagents, gentleman hermit occultists and scheming bureaucrats; all part of the everyday life of weird suburban London. And only these people can stop the return of an ancient evil.
If it sounds rather silly and jolly, that’s because it is. It’s a ride of one farcical, entertaining shot after another. I chuckled pretty regularly. At times it aims for a darker, more tense note. It’s more hit and miss there; a few moments land, but just as many are just there. There’s a few moments of good emotional pathos with just how scared Jim Pooley is of the whole thing, but most other attempts to find a deeper resonance don’t work. As a story… well, I originally said a lot more. But, the thing I like best about the story is the air of mystery, so I deleted a lot. Thing is, it’s all in the blurb and on bookseller sites, so me going spoiler free probably doesn’t matter. But I’ll try.
In any case. It’s a fun collection of comedic scenes. When it comes to bringing an extra dimension of emotion, and a story, it’s an okay book but it doesn’t elevate itself much above the laughs. That still makes The Antipope a good read. Still, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps its main appeal – or lack thereof – lies in its cultural milieu. Me, who grew up in suburban London a little after this period, with similar feeling media a big part of my childhood, very much enjoys it. Whether someone else feels the same, or whether they find it too weird, too blokey, too parochial, I don’t really know.
Maybe someone else will pick it up and let me know.