David Bowman reviews 'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson.

By David Bowman
Published November 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

There's nothing to praise in this novel. Here's a metaphor: Consider a lunch counter where the burgers are small and overpriced and the soda jerk surly. It's not the worst eatery in town, but why on earth should anyone eat there? Now "Soft!" is a novel, not a dive, of course. And Rupert Thomson probably spent a year of his life writing it -- how can he just be written off? Especially when his third novel, "Air & Fire," was a masterly retelling of Joseph Conrad's "Nostromo." Thomson's last book, "The Insult," was a little dull, but not too dull that a reader didn't want to finish it.

But that's the thing! A few readers must finish every book they start. But many don't. Unless they're reviewing the title, they throw the book down if it doesn't engage them by Page 50. Well, the first 50 pages of "Soft!" are like a glass filled with flat Coke. They concern a small-time English hood named Barker Dodds doing small-time hood things. The next 50 pages are even flatter, following a new uninspiring character, waitress Glade Spencer. Then the story begins yet again on Page 115 when a British advertising executive (a "Senior Brand Manager" named Jimmy) gets a brainstorm about how to market a new soft drink called, ah-ha, Soft: What if you take a group of everyday people and subliminally program them to love Soft? Not just to love it, but to become evangelists for the product? Talk about word of mouth! But how would you hypnotize them? Pay unsuspecting citizens to sleep in a "laboratory" as part of a "sleep research" program. Then while they're conked on drugs, pump their brain with subliminal advertising.

The bulk of the novel is a dull noir concerning the British advertising industry. A reader is reintroduced to Glade Spencer. She's been brainwashed. She desperately craves Soft. Not only that, she craves all things that are orange like the Soft can. When news of Soft's unique and criminal advertising strategy is about to be made public, Barker Dodds is hired to silence the waitress.

Thomson probably started writing a novel about Jimmy and brainwashing and soda pop. Then he created the waitress character. Then the thug. Thomson fell in love with the thug first. Then Thomson thought the waitress seemed promising. Just who the hell was the protagonist of this novel anyway? So Thomson restructured "Soft!" Maybe if the thug and the waitress were engaging characters, or if Thomson's prose weren't so bland here, the book would have worked. But it doesn't. If you want to know the truth, many readers will not get past Page 30 in "Soft!" A good line appears on Page 132: "It was the first time in his life that Jimmy had ever seen a jaw actually drop." But good Christ! Why spend both $24 and two hours of your life just to read, "It was the first time in his life that Jimmy had ever seen a jaw actually drop"?

Attached to the uncorrected proof of this book is a list of "acclaim from the U.K.," where "Soft!" was called "brilliant" and "gripping." Thomson is a "linguistic acrobat." What novel were these Brits really reading? These reviews are mentioned to suggest that my negative reaction is a Yank thing. After all, there are no British equivalents to Elmore Leonard, let alone James M. Cain. Graham Greene? Please. Case closed. On a national level, there's always the master, Alfred Hitchcock. But movies are movies and books are books. And "Soft!" is as exciting as its title without the exclamation mark. But we shouldn't write Thomson off. "Air & Fire" is too admirable a book. Still, this reviewer refuses to elevate some slightly interesting scene (such as one that occurs near the end, when a house cat is set afire) in order to suggest that a novel of such meager merits is worth anyone's time and American money.

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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