Stewart Lee Press

Stewart Lee - "The Perfect Fool" - Review

July 30, 2001  For a while, it seemed that every comedian who ever appeared on TV would make a leap onto the publishing bandwagon, using whatever fame they had as a springboard for a hoped-for literary career. Of course, most quickly floundered.
While not all the novels were as bad as their subsequent reputation suggested, it has led to a certain caution when approaching a first-time effort from one of comedy's finest.

With a bit of luck, Stewart Lee might help change all that.

First, though, it has to be said that The Perfect Fool is not especially funny. If you wanted some sort of Fist Of Fun bumper book of laughs, this isn't it.

For while it is certainly entertaining ­ and there are a fair share of comic incidents ­ it's not a laugh-out-loud assault on the funnybone.

What it is, though, is a thoughtful, engrossing ­ and meticulously researched - page-turner, packed with endearing, fascinating and fully three-dimensional characters.

There's an obvious cinematic feel to this ambitious book, too, much of which is set in the blazing sun and wide open spaces of the Arizona deserts so beloved by film-makers. It's certainly a Hollywood-friendly storyline, too, being essentially a version of the road movie, where the journey is much more interesting than any destination. Only here, everyone's travelling towards a state of mind, rather than any geographical location.

Some of the characters and themes will be familiar to anyone who's seen Lee's later stand-up work. Never a traditional gagsmith, he instead pondered the philosophy of characters whose experiences were so extreme that the rest of life could only be a disappointment. Characters that transfer well to a novel.

The misfits in this book are all searching for the Holy Grail, whether physically or metaphorically, to fill a void in their lives. They include Mr Lewis, who believes he once walked in space, the fugitive Tracy who leaves a trail of corpses behind her, and Sid and Danny ­ musicians who pissed away their one shot at the big time and ended up in a failed Dire Straits tribute band.

The plot, or at least some of it, is driven by Sid's obsession with obscure acid casualty rock star Luther Peyote ­ a trait Lee is surely well-placed to observe, thanks to his own experiences as the Sunday Times music critic responsible for reviewing all those bands most the world has never heard of.

And perhaps the stand-up who has admitted frustration with the limitations of the live circuit has also drawn on his own feeligs for Bob, the native American clown who no longer finds his job amusing.

Anywho, these disparate tales of empty lives run on in parallel until, as the laws of fiction demand, they interweave in an inevitable ­ and sometimes downright incredible ­ series of coincidences.

In truth, the way these strands are drawn together is none-too-subtle, and the plot joins do jar. But they are only minor failures in the suspension of disbelief, and once the unlikely characters are forced together, how they got that way soon seems unimportant.

Thereafter, each individual quest depends on the others for the happy ending ­ or perhaps 'successful conclusion' might be a better phrase to use about a novel that rarely deals in such absolutes.

Though imperfect, The Perfect Fool would be a promising debut from any nascent novelist.

If you didn't know Lee's comedy background, you certainly wouldn't guess it from this ­ and that is meant as a compliment. The philosophical tone and imaginatively-conceived diversity of characters are not what you'd expect, and, unlike certain other comics' efforts, it certainly doesn't feel like a second-rate potboiler released to cash in on the author's fame.

Let's hope this is the first of many.

Oh, almost forgot to say - it's like Jack Kerouac on temazepam.

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