Amazing Disgrace, By James Hamilton-Paterson, Europa, 320 pp., paperback,, $14.95
Samper's back! Yes, this Boswell lacking only a Dr. Johnson, opera super-buff, keen admirer of the male form (including his own, fashionably draped), and maestro of unnerving cuisine, has returned, by discriminating demand.
Or thus Gerald Samper , protagonist of James Hamilton-Paterson's "Cooking With Fernet Branca" (2005), might preeningly put it of himself. Samper, back in "Amazing Disgrace," is in his own eyes an exquisite forced to struggle for his bread, and the upkeep on his Tuscan hillside villa, by generating bios of odious sports celebs who possess "syntax-free thought patterns and a vocabulary of five hundred words" -- deliberately shallow glosses whose titles invariably end in an exclamation point.
Samper teeters comically on the fulcrum of his self-regard between two familiar types: He is dandy and ass both. Consequently, when satire flags, he keeps things moving by falling on his prat, memorably in "Fernet Branca" in a privy, down a mountainside.
His hoots at the cheesy world he surveys are even choicer than his tumbles. He rails at today's "riffraff culture of hooliscruffs and yobbigans," at beachgoers with "graceless bulbosities creakingly restrained by wisps of designer nylon" -- well, really, most of humanity who live downslope from Casa Samper. Certainly, his distaste for his work seems wholly credible. Imagine, really, how stupefying a colloquy with A-Rod might be.
"Amazing Disgrace" begins with Samper embroiled in another detested project, the life and times of Millie Cleat. Millie is a celebrated solo ocean sailor -- doughty, "spiritual," shamelessly self-promoting (Samper imagines her "filling the tub in her Hilton suite in order to practise walking on water"). If that were insufficient gall to Samper, she does it all with a conspicuous handicap -- she's missing an arm, lost to a shark. So, with Samper in foulest fettle, the reader naturally embarks with high spirits. Unfortunately, where "Fernet B ranca" rollicked, only occasionally flounder ing in plot complications, "Disgrace" wallows almost from the start.
Very early, there is a digression (later woven into the story) that demonstrates the severe limitations of oceanography as comic genre (at one point, Samper as narrator actually apologizes for the tedium of events). Even after we recover from this, too many of the gags are delivered sluggishly, and there are too few passages of brilliant dyspepsia, as in the earlier book, delivered at such a pitch that Samper's merest grunts are funny. One potent scatological set-up is allowed to merely poop out somewhere mid-book.
What is wrong more than anything is Hamilton-Paterson's choice of foil for Samper 2. Going for the jugular, the poor fellow simply sinks his teeth too deep into Millie for much fun. We miss Marta, Samper 1's earthy, brainy nemesis in Tuscany. Marta returns very late in "Disgrace," and Samper's affectionate exasperation with her -- he concedes that he has misjudged her as a "bumpkin fresh from the steppe" -- affords a far higher order of play than the rancor he dumps on Millie like wheelbarrows of gravel.
And yet. If Samper 2 is less entertaining than 1, he is more roundly drawn. Seeing him in his former London haunts puts him in some relief. He is more lustily gay than previously, and the sex seems to agree with him. Though far from mellowed, he sees his world with both more relish and more longing.
Even with Samper off his game, there is great pleasure in his curdled company. No mere v ile body or vacuous talking head, he is in the long line of literary commentators -- the mandarin sensibility who pours out social observation as smoothly as a cup of oolong. With Samper, it comes in an appetizing prose crisp with contempt and musical in its malice.
Gossipy, fussy, amused and amusing, Samper is even, we see by novel's end, just a bit of a dear. Certainly, one hopes for more (including, oh yes, the infamous recipes that rattle one's palate). Samper 3, then, please, James Hamilton-Paterson -- arm in arm, one hopes, with Marta.