novel The Silent Sentry.
The book is set at BBC radio, and as it opens, the hero Maurice Reid is in a major mid-life rut that leads him to consult a doctor about his non-existent sex life. After a heart to heart chat, he’s asked to provide a sample he assumes is intended to check his sperm count:
Maurice closed the door behind him and took out his warm jar. ‘There.’ He held it out proudly.
The nurse put the envelope down and took the jar from him. She looked at it and coughed, though it could have been a stifled laugh.
‘Is there not enough or something?’ Maurice said wretchedly.
‘It was a urine sample we were after Mr. Reid.’
After a first scene like this, it’s impossible not to sympathise with Maurice as he stumbles from one humiliation to another.
Maurice’s girlfriend has just chucked him out, and he’s forced to live in his office, sometimes with his young son in tow. He’s also terrified of losing his job in a rationalisation initiative that is sweeping the Corporation, and he’s never gotten over losing his ex-wife to an unusual rival:
Polly lived in Brixton with their four-year-old son Will and a woman called Val. She and Maurice had been separated for two years, and divorced for one, but Maurice still used the local doctor and dentist because he’d not got round to registering anywhere else. This, at least, was the reason he always gave to Polly.
But Polly is pondering a move to the United States, meaning that Maurice must shake off his listlessness, or risking losing her and his son completely.
He also has to save his job, or so he thinks, and the worst seems to have come, when his boss Vincent Edwards summons him to his office, gives him a single malt and tells him to take a month’s leave. In reality, though, the boss is trying to shield his protégé while he prepares a very odd sort of final masterwork:
‘Perhaps it’s the whisky talking or something…but you don’t really want me to go on leave because you think I need to. So why?’
Edwards opened a drawer in his desk. He took out a sheaf of A4 paper and passed it to Maurice.
‘The White Symphony’ Maurice read.
Maurice turned over the first page. The sheet was blank. As was the second and the third.
What Edwards is planning is the radio equivalent of suicide – a piece consisting of nothing but dead air.
The jaded journalists who populate The Silent Sentry come in for a lot of deserved satire, but Paling pulls off the neat trick of showing their likeable, human sides as well. This novel gives the rare opportunity to laugh at others’ expense without feeling bad at all about it afterward.