Timoleon Vieta Come Home
A Sentimental Journey

Dan Rhodes
Canongate Books (Edinburgh)
226 pages, $23

Dan Rhodes is perhaps the brightest young star in British fiction. A jacket blurb taken from the Guardian hails him as "the best new writer in Britain," and earlier this year Granta included him in its list of 20 best young British novelists. Before this newest book he had published two well received collections of stories, Anthropology and Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love. It's at least arguable that in Timoleon Vieta he has produced, not a novel at all, but his third collection.

But first, that title. It's clearly meant to evoke the sentimental dog story Lassie Come Home, and, indeed, the name "Timoleon Vieta" is attached to a dog. Why this dog is so named is not explained, though it is possible to identify the source of this curious cognomen, as W.C. Fields might have called it. I'll defer that for a bit.

In structure the book is simplicity itself. Timoleon Vieta, a mongrel distinguished only by his extraordinarily beautiful eyes, lives with Carthusians Cockcroft (yes, I'll deal with that one as well), a formerly successful bandleader and composer of pop music for television and stage who is now living on a small pension and irregular royalties in a rundown farmhouse in Umbria. Cockcroft is desperate for love, or at least its appearance, and in his loneliness dwells morosely on former lovers and his failed career. One day a dark stranger appears carrying a business card that Cockcroft cannot quite remember having handed out during a drunken weekend in Florence. Cockcroft takes him in, and although the stranger, known only as the Bosnian (though, as we eventually learn, he is no such thing), is unsociable to a degree, they soon arrive at a modus vivendi - food, shelter, and a few new clothes in exchange for simple home repairs, a pretense of companionship, and a bit of fellatio each Wednesday evening.

From the start, Timoleon Vieta hates the Bosnian, and the Bosnian returns the sentiment. Eventually the Bosnian convinces Cockcroft to drive the dog to Rome and abandon him there. Timoleon Vieta immediately sets out to walk back to the farmhouse. Along the way he meets, or just passes near, various people who are living out their own tales of love and pain. It is these tales that make up most of the short book, with occasional scenes from the Cockcroft-Bosnian ménage interspersed.

Some of the tales hover on the verge of falling into fairy tale; others threaten to be soap opera; in the end, we get neither magic nor melodrama, but a not-quite Olympian view of how humans avert both tragedy and comedy by the simple trick of being ordinary. Love - romantic love, anyway, the everlasting and all-conquering love taught us by literature and lore - is the fraud that would render life unendurable but for the fact that we are saved by our foibles and vices - fickleness, negligence, forgetfulness, hope.

In one mordant little passage, Rhodes has Cockcroft try to emulate his fellow expats by writing a memoir of his life in Italy - something like their Olive Oil and Sunset: An Umbrian Odyssey or Cracked Walls and Chianti: Five Seasons on a Tuscan Hillside. After much struggle he has managed just one 40-page chapter, but the effort to distill something witty or picturesque from his daily existence proves too much, and he gives it up.

Trying to write the book had, at least for a while, made him appreciate his humdrum life. He was glad that he could go from day to day with very little happening to him. It certainly beat having things that were worth writing about happening to him all the time."

It is Rhodes' insistence on the story form that makes one question whether this is a novel. The one character that is supposed to provide the unity of a novel is not a character at all but a device. It is right that Timoleon Vieta not be anthropomorphized; but the alternative is a main "character" with no inner life of any kind. He is, moreover, a main character who is seldom present. His connection to many of the tales is to have happened by, to have been noticed, when he might just as well have been elsewhere. What the book offers, then, is a series of lightly linked tales, linked sometimes awkwardly by the artfully happenstance wanderings of a dog, and linked rather more persuasively by a theme.

What makes this work - and it does work, however we may quibble over how to categorize the book - is Rhodes' control of language. The tales are told at arm's length, in the same simple words and the same gently ironic tone, and with the same sidelong amused glances, that one uses to tell tales to children while there are other adults in the room. Even the rather horrible things that happen in a few of the tales are so quietly told that we hardly flinch. In the same way, good fortune is held in perspective as something that may or may not come but if it does will surely pass.

Now, about those names. "Carthusians Cockcroft" and "Timoleon Vieta" are the catch-titles stamped on the spines of Vols. 5 and 22, respectively, of the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Does this mean anything? I have no idea. We learn late that "Carthusians Cockcroft" is an assumed name that replaced a stage name, but we aren't told how or why. (Is it significant that the 14th edition was last published in 1973, just before Cockcroft's career crashed as a result of a drunken and very un-PC rant on a television chat show?) We don't know why the dog is named as he is, either. Perhaps these are inside jokes. Surely the fact that Cockcroft's piano is said to be a "Spelman Timmins" (Vol. 21) is pure sport. Perhaps, too, there is some connection with a piece by Alan Coren that appeared many years ago in Punch, in which he pretended that "some organization calling itself the Encyclopaedia Britannica" had sent him twenty-three books to review. Like any reviewer, he explained, he hadn't the time actually to read the books and instead just guessed at their content based on those catch-titles. "Carthusians Cockcroft" turned out to be the tragic tale of a pedophile schoolmaster, while "Timoleon Vieta" was a collection of passionate love letters exchanged by a young prince and the girl whom he glimpsed just once in his life. Love stories and yet more love stories.