"KING OF THE BADGERS." By Philip Hensher. Faber & Faber. $26.
The first thing you notice about "King of the Badgers," the new novel by British writer Philip Hensher, is how sharp its descriptive detail can be. For example: "He was a man fat in rolls about the middle, the top of his bald head wet and beaded. His gingery-white hair shocked out to either side, weeks away from a respectable haircut."
The second thing you notice is how sour-witted and slackly focused its satire is -- qualities that ultimately make it a wearying, dispiriting read.
"Badgers" chronicles events and nonevents among upscale types and clueless lowlifes in a north Devon town. The plot initially seems to concern the disappearance of a young girl from an "awful family," which soon leads to a media circus descending on quaint old Hanmouth. ("Human curiosity," one character comments. "There's no decent limit to it.")
The rumors surrounding the likely crime serve as an excuse to drop into the lives of dozens of Hanmouth's citizens. They include doddering retirees, sullen teens, a transgressive collage artist, a security-obsessed snoop, a pair of middle-aged professionals with a spending problem, and a circle of cocaine-sniffing gay "bears" who get together for orgies.
The book is ambitious in scope, but the more you read the less its mysteries deepen and the more its stereotypic protagonists stay put in their shallows. Hensher, author of the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted "The Northern Clemency," is no genius with plot here, and he pushes coincidence to an absurd degree.
The description, although impressive at first, cumulatively feels as clotted as Devonshire cream. This is fiction for readers who want to know every last detail about a room's decor each time another thinly drawn character enters it.
-- Michael Upchurch
The Seattle Times