William Brandt? Local guy, I'm almost sure. Didn't he write that book of ... blokey short stories, was it? Alpha Males, or something. People liked it. I think. It was a year or two ago. I kind of meant to read it ...

That was my considered view of William Brandt this time last week. I now have an updated version: William Brandt is New Zealand's best light-comic writer. He's going to be a huge international success, and Australians will focus on the fact that he once studied in Sydney and claim him as one of their native sons. You should give his new book to your parents for Christmas.

The book is a novel, Brandt's first, and its title gives you a good look at his talents. Taking the stock phrase "the book of the film" and extending it all the way out to The Book of the Film of the Story of My Life is one of those jokes which seems obvious the moment someone else thinks of it, as though it had been lying around in the cultural backyard just waiting for someone to notice it.

Hack writers can expect to fall over a phrase like this occasionally, but the ability to toss them off casually, page after page, is rare. I was continually chuckling, chortling or breaking into hysterical laughter as I read this book, and the reason was not so much any specific one-liner - though there are a good few of those - as Brandt's pitch-perfect ear for the rhythms of everyday language.

He also knows how people work. Frederick Case, the book's self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-loathing narrator, is a gloriously believable creation, pathetic yet sympathetic, and altogether very good company.

Frederick is 42 and in the throes of a major mid-life crisis. His career is a flop, his marriage is in trouble, and he's living on handouts from his parents.

Generally speaking, he's the kind of cliche I'd burn books to avoid. I was in love with him from page one.

Frederick lives in London, along, it seems, with half the population of New Zealand. Wherever he goes, he bumps into Kiwis: it becomes a running gag. I haven't seen a writer make such good use of the New Zealanders abroad experience before, for comic effect and as a way of expressing loss and self-alienation. This comes close to being the great ex-pat Kiwi novel.

It comes close to being a great novel, period. My one complaint about it - and it's a routine complaint about very good comic writing - is that Brandt could have written something even better. The portrayal of Frederick, particularly regarding his self-deceiving approach to his marriage, is slightly too hard-edged for the book's sugar-coated ending to feel like anything but a cop-out.

Brandt tries to treat realism as something you can indulge in to give your comedy extra edge, with no particular consequences in terms of your readers' expectations.

It doesn't entirely work.

But if Frederick's vividly depicted flaws undercut the ending somewhat, they remain a key strength of the book. Brandt's prose would be funny almost regardless of content, but it's his ability to create well-observed, complex and believable characters - characters you care about, even when you want to wring their necks - that makes him stand out. This is a dazzling piece of writing.



* David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.