Tomorrow's Books


Howard Jacobsen

    In an age of partners and swingers, the term ‘wife-swapping’ has an old-fashioned ring to it: like ‘love child’ or ‘fork supper’, it suggests a world more easily shocked by sexual shenanigans than our own.  But then Marvin Kreitman, the hero of Howard Jacobsen’s latest novel, is an old-fashioned man; he just happens to have a wife and five mistresses.
     Kreitman is a would-be academic cursed with a genius for selling which has made him ‘the luggage baron of South London’.  He is also a sex maniac.  By contrast, his best friend Charlie – a gentle writer of children’s books – has been faithfully (and apparently happily) married to the frumpy Chas for 23 years.
     Neither, though, is content with his lot.  Kreitman finds no joy in the sex he pursues so compulsively; Charlie envies his friend’s promiscuity and longs to find his own ‘inner bastard’.  When Charlie drunkenly suggests changing places, Kreitman refuses to take his offer seriously – but an unexpected series of events brings the swap about anyway.  Charlie discovers the thrill of an affair with Kreitman’s neglected wife, while the wounded Kreitman falls whole-heartedly in love with Chas.  But can this perfect symmetry last?
     Although sex is mentioned on almost every page, this is not a salacious book.  For Jacobsen, the act is less interesting than his characters’ attitudes to it.  He manages to convince us that Kreitman, for all his carryings-on, is a hopelessly sentimental man at sea in a feminist world: with women calling the shots, Don Juan is suddenly just a gigolo.
     Who’s Sorry Now? is a sad novel, but it is also an extremely funny one. Jacobsen is brilliant at light satire, deftly dismantling everything from conceptual art (in the form of a talking rubbish bin) to Harry Potter.  There are some wonderful conceits, too, such as a German plot to dominate the world by speaking perfect English – ‘Help them with their idiomatic expression and they would spare your family.’
     The book has one problem: the best thing in it is the wine-bar banter between Kreitman and Charlie, and when the two fall out, the narrative loses some of its sparkle. There is enough left, though, to outfizz a vat of Veuve Clicquot.