Iain Banks: Dead Air

By JOHN McCRYSTAL

You can isolate some moments, the main character of Dead Air tells us, which are "like the first tile in one of those impressive but irredeemably geeky record-breaking domino-falling displays that people stage in sports halls". For Ken, this moment comes when he is at a party on the eve, appropriately enough, of September 11. Some psychological shift sets him drifting away from his girlfriend, and on a collision course with a whole lot of trouble.

Ken Nott is a Scottish-born, London-based "shock jock", a DJ with a reputation for saying improper things. He's been hired for it, and fired for it, and he is riding a thin line with his employer, Capital Live! His opinions - that George "Dubya" Bush's election to the US presidency was undemocratic, that US foreign policy is corrupt and imperialist, that Israel uses the moral blank cheque of the Holocaust to justify perpetrating its own atrocities on the Palestinians - earn him plenty of enemies.

Ken manages to acquire enemies in his spare time, too. He witnesses a car accident and volunteers to testify against the driver who was at fault. He is courted to hold a televised debate with a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier. He's having an affair with a married woman and, as if this isn't bad enough, she just happens to be married to John Merrial, a major figure in London's criminal underworld.

Death threats are par for the course in Nott's job, but when one night he becomes the target of an attempted abduction, they take on a decidedly more unsettling significance.

Dead Air starts slowly, and the first third consists mostly of Nott's witty, opinionated rants and his fast drug-drink-and-sex-fuelled lifestyle. But then the plot begins to form glutinous, sinister strands, and the last 100 pages are like a ride on the Skyscreamer right after a few pints and a vindaloo.

You'll have to be a pretty disciplined reader to stop yourself flicking ahead to try to find some comfort in the ending. I found the urge nearly irresistible: you know you're at an author's mercy when you are hoping the past-tense narration indicates that the narrator survived the events being related.

Banks is a fresh and inventive writer: giving a character a soapbox, as he does for a large chunk of the book, is terribly risky, for if the oration alienates the reader, it's a long road back. Nott's motor-mouth diatribes are mostly hilarious, however, whether you agree with the point of view expressed or not.

And once those tiles begin falling in earnest, you'll be hard pressed to look away. It's not often you come across a book which is genuinely impossible to put down. The last half of Dead Air marks it out emphatically as one of them.

Penguin

$34.95

* John McCrystal is an Auckland freelance writer.

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