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First Fiction

October 30, 2005|Mark Rozzo


The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant

Pablo Tusset

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

Canongate: 484 pp., $14 paper

JUST to get it out of the way: The best thing that can happen to a croissant -- at least according to Pablo Miralles, the 30-ish Catalunyan slacker at the heart of this cocaine-fueled, conspiracy-filled saga -- is that it should be slathered with butter. Good for the croissant, good for Pablo.

What that has to do with anything that ensues in this zany thriller is anybody's guess. Likewise, as Pablo makes his way through a modern Barcelona of hashish, hookers, strong coffee, late nights and later mornings, it's unclear where Pablo Tusset's desultory yet entirely entertaining narrative is headed. The effect, at its best, is equal parts Pedro Almodovar and Haruki Murakami: a rainbow-hued urban tall tale that merrily stretches credulity and good taste to the snapping point.

"The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant" builds in a series of episodes in which Pablo -- a habitue of dive bars, drug dens and philosophy chatrooms -- discovers that his filthy-rich father has been hit (but not killed) by a car, that his do-good brother has been kidnapped and that he himself can't function without intoxicants.

"I drink like a fish," the charming Pablo tells his would-be girlfriend, a bodacious ditz who just happens to be married. "I like sleeping with hookers, I spend most of the day sleeping and I get acne from the mere thought of working eight hours a day." He's not exactly Philip Marlowe, but the strange circumstances that envelop the Miralles family demand that this louche soul get a haircut and start chasing down the bad guys.

In the end, Pablo manages to unearth, right in Barcelona, an 800-year-old secret society worthy of "The Name of the Rose" and complete with murderous thugs, a creepy honcho and a labyrinthine headquarters called the Fortress. But this shadowy organization, which appeals to people who don't like going outside or worrying about money, could turn out to be the family that Tusset's coke-fiend philosopher-hero needs. After all, Pablo may be utterly useless, but he knows which side his croissant is buttered on.



Tim Relf

Warner Books: 314 pp, $13.95 paper

"I didn't want to run marathons and get excited by wardrobes in Ikea. I wanted to be like I was, and tonight I was going to get drunk and it was good having that certainty." So muses Rob Purcell, the 29-year-old English pub crawler at the heart of Tim Relf's engaging first novel, a portrait of Generation X alcoholism as lighthearted as it is horrifying.

Rob is the self-appointed "good laugh," the kind of bloke who lives his 20s as if it's still second year at university. Now staring into the business end of turning 30 and self-medicating with endless pints of Stella, Rob finds himself in Newcastle with his old university chums, toasting the coming marriage of his best friend, Matt. It's a stag weekend, which Rob takes as license to get royally tanked, make scary passes at teenage girls and wallow in beer-logged nostalgia.

What Rob discovers, though, is that his mates are more interested in discussing politics, sports and where to buy sofas than they are in puking in alleys. It also turns out that Matt has chosen another pal to be his best man, a decision that nudges Rob toward the realization that he's finally become a total lout, one his friends can barely tolerate.

"Stag" is a sobering tale of inebriation that rolls along like a drunken rant -- full of teary flashbacks -- that Rob aims at himself. This is bleak stuff, but it's buoyed by Relf's lad-mag prose and multiplex-friendly plotting. Imagine Augusten Burroughs' "Dry" adapted for the screen by the people who brought you "Four Weddings and a Funeral," or "Days of Wine and Roses" re-imagined by Nick Hornby. "People like me," Rob tells us, "ended up with fractured skulls, broken pelvises, stab wounds; we died quietly, bubbling in our own vomit in car parks."

In Rob -- never the groom and not even the best man, scared witless of himself and the future, and finally mustering the guts to quit -- Relf gives us a memorable modern drunk.

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