Nothing Sacred

Injury Time

by Beryl Bainbridge
George Braziller, 203 pp., $7.95

The World According to Garp

by John Irving
E.P. Dutton/Henry Robbins, 437 pp., $10.95

An American Romance

by John Casey
Pocket Books, 455 pp., $2.25

She spoke of death, likening middle age to the second half of a football match. The game, she said, long since decided, was drawing to a close. Short of breath and flecked with mud, trembling in every limb, the players struggled up and down the pitch, waiting for the final whistle to blow.

The image is plausible enough, but the hint of parody in the language, the suggestion of life wrapped up in a rugged simile, should warn us not to take it too seriously, even if Beryl Bainbridge does pursue it in the title of her very funny new novel. Injury Time in this context is time added on for stoppages, a game’s last ghostly flicker, and the injuries in this case are a rape, some broken ribs, and a sliced ear which causes its balding owner to feel his philandering days are done—“Women were used to men losing their hair. They didn’t expect ears to recede as well; he wasn’t Van Gogh….”

Edward Freeman, a portly and timid accountant, has invited a married couple to dinner at the house of his mistress Binny, the charming, nervous, and rather slovenly woman who is the author of the football analogy. The dinner has not been a great success, and has already been interrupted by Binny’s drunken friend Alma, tearful and throwing up, when a gang of bank robbers arrive and settle in for a siege. At this point another view of life’s second half appears. “Christ,” one of the robbers says, “They’re all past it. We’ve landed in an old people’s club.”

In fact, Binny’s analogy is less a picture of middle age than a forlorn bid for mental mastery over a world which seems more and more bewildering, scattered with omens of damage and distress. She and Alma see a disorderly collection of aged bums having a drink on the street, and she says, “It’s everywhere. Where are the police?” She notices the two taped fingers of the fishmonger who serves her, is almost knocked over on a zebra crossing, worries about a child in an abandoned pram. (There is no child, as it happens, the bank robbers are using the pram to smuggle their money away from the bank.) Binny finds the world “menacing and full of alarms,” “less predictable” than it used to be. She compares her life to railway travel gone wrong: “The guard was on strike and the communication cord had been ripped from the roof.”

Edward too finds violence and dishonesty and infidelity everywhere, and wonders whether these sad changes don’t have something to do with a new nonchalance about hats: “No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.” It’s a theory, in much the same way that Binny’s analogy is a description: an unconvinced gesture toward a troubling state of affairs which is nameless, perhaps unnamable, but nevertheless almost solid enough to touch. What…

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