Lewycka’s novel is at times reminiscent of Cooking with Fernet-Branca, James Hamilton-Paterson’s exquisite 2005 comic romp. She conveys with assurance both the banalities of desperation and the artifices of cunning. This is a return to the form of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, its humour underscored by melancholy at human foolishness. It is funny, sad and a little bit silly.
But for at least half the book’s length, it’s very funny and playful, and it works. There are some great set pieces, such as a violent row between Rosie and Brenda in the latter’s hairdressing salon, and surprises too, where even a racist attack on a Muslim woman ends up being played for laughs as she retaliates with a tirade of Yorkshire’s finest swearing. (“George is impressed at her manifest assimilation, her ability to straddle two cultures.”)
There has been a lot of sanctimonious chatter about fiction writers confining themselves to what they know. Clearly Lewycka didn’t get the memo: this caper takes us from Sheffield to the frontiers of Europe’s refugee crisis and a kidney-harvesting scheme in Albania. While I enjoyed some of Lewycka’s previous novels, I found this one tiresome, implausible and in increasingly dubious taste
Along the way, there’s some decent situational comedy, and the story reaches a fittingly dramatic climax. Still, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Lewycka is operating some way off her top level. The characters are cartoonish; the structure is jumbled and repetitive; and it is never really clear what interests Lewycka more: the fallout from Brexit or the machinations of organised crime. Ultimately, The Good, the Bad and the Little Bit Stupid comes across as rather like its protagonist: promiscuously inclined, overly fixated on breasts and generally a bit befuddled by the strange complexities of the modern world.
Faced with Marina Lewycka’s new novel, it’s tempting to say that The Good, the Bad and the Little Bit Stupid is also a pretty serviceable description of its contents. Yet, in the end, that feels far too neat a formulation for a book that goes well beyond the uneven into the realms of the completely unhinged. For one thing, its elements — among them suburban social comedy, the horrors of Brexit, money laundering, geriatric sex and the international trade in human organs — seem not so much disparate as random. For another, they’re never remotely blended, but simply allowed to co-exist.
There is a place for silliness and the grotesque in difficult times. Jokes about foreigners too, maybe. However, it takes real genius — a Gillray, say, or the writers of Viz — to get it right. Hopefully, Lewycka, whose heart is, as ever, in the right place, will lay down her pop gun and whoopee cushion before taking up her pen again.