- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

By Alan Wall
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's, $23.95, 294 pages

People who still need and read novels a steadily dwindling number of diehards will already have noticed that lots of the most lively and interesting fiction these days is coming to us (and at us) from the British. The Brits usually have interesting subjects and lively prose. They seem to be having and sharing some fun, playing around with the possible shapes that a novel can assume, busily reininventing and revising in order to arrive at new ways and means of telling old tales, beginning, more and more, to exploit their own spoken language, its various dialects and wide regional diversity.
Meanwhile, many of the Yanks seem to be temporarily stalled, confined to the turf of their stolid conventionality. Of course, it is true that he Brits (together with the Germans) own a very large piece of the action of American publishing, and for a variety of reasons it is much easier for British writers to be published over here than vice versa. Sometimes it seems that the Americans, unlike the late Groucho Marx, are seriously trying to find and to join a transatlantic club that will have them as members. Are be becoming colonials again?
Alan Wall's "The School of Night" is not exactly a case in point, but it is certainly a good representative of the confident voices of contemporary British fiction. Lively and interesting it certainly is, intelligent, accessible and ambitious while remaining unpretentious. The basic premise of one part of the double-tracked story line is based on the lifetime obsession of Sean Tallow, central character and narrator, with some mysteries and problems of Elizabethan intellectual history: What can we know, after all these years, about a little group of poets and philosophers and explorers, called "The School of Night," who, for a time in the 1590s, gathered around the welcoming and powerful presence of Sir Walter Raleigh?
They earned their name from both friends and enemies and, most famously, were mentioned by that name in Shakespeare's satire of just such a group in "Love's Labour's Lost." The second question is who, in truth, really wrote the plays and poems which are credited to Shakespeare?
If you think that this silly controversy has seen better days, bear in mind that Australian filmmaker Michael Rubbo has just released (March 2002) a brand new documentary, "Much Ado About Something," arguing that it was Christopher Marlowe, alive and well in Italy instead of dead and buried in Deptford, who wrote the plays and poems for which William Shakespeare was merely a front man.
That a number of scholars and such including Mark Rylance, the artistic director of the Contemporary Globe, have signed on to this off-thewall foolishness says nothing above and beyond the philosophical fact that even as I write these words, somebody is making a down payment on the Brooklyn Bridge.
I can't justly tell you how Mr. Wall handles the subject without spoiling the good fun of it except to say that it is fun and that the material and Tallow's obsession with it are deftly linked with the story's other strands.
The chief among the other strands is the life and times of Sean Tallow and his best and oldest friend, Daniel Pagett. The immediate situation is that Daniel is dead; Sean in a tower by the sea, is sitting by the body through the night "I am here because later today, once the dark makes way for dawn, Daniel Pagett will be taken from this place to a furnace and burnt." Through the night Sean speaks to us, in first-person and in his native Yorkshire idiom, telling us the story of their lives: his own, coming out of real poverty to an Oxford education and a life in London where, as a kind of freelance scholar, he can indulge his Elizabethan obsessions.
A lapsed Catholic, Sean returns to the Church. Meanwhile, Daniel, starting out with a leg up in the class system, rises to gain great riches before he finally falls to financial ruin. There are some fascinating and complicated women in their lives (one is a Freudian analyst who causes no end of trouble); and there are any number of fully dimensional, unusual and memorable characters, major and minor. Mr. Wall has the gift of giving his characters the breath of life with just the appropriate detail. The sense of place, both London as it is and Yorkshire, as it was, is splendidly sensory and detailed.
Above all, however it is the language, the voice of Sean Tallow that makes this well plotted story line.
He can talk the Northern England street talk and, thanks to Oxford, he can as well, when he feels like it or has to, talk the talk of today's intellectuals. Post-Civil War America, the gilded age of Mark Twain saw this same exciting blend of written and spoken language give new life to our literature. Sean Tallow has a distant kinship with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. And with this book, his ninth so far, Alan Wall proves himself a member-in-good-standing of a club most readers and writers would be happy and honored to belong to.

George Garrett's forthcoming book is "Going to See the Elephant: Pieces of a Writing Life."

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