King of the Badgers
The inhabitants of a small English town respond to a shocking crime.
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The case of the missing child, the throngs of ghoulish visitors it has attracted to the town, and the possibility of evil doers going amongst them, now and forever, have been a gift to Calvin. Head of Hammouth's Neighborhood Watch group, he is a tireless advocate of putting the whole town under the gaze of CCTVs. Like every apologist of the ever-expanding surveillance state, his mantra is that "if you have nothing to hide, you have absolutely nothing to fear."Skip to next paragraph
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The loss of privacy, even of the very right to have a private life, is a large theme in this book. Indeed, the novel, which proceeds chiefly from the points of view of its different characters, does, in one instance, advance the story from what various electronic devices (email, cell phone, card swipes, CCTV) routinely record about an individual's once-private life.
The unfavorable attention brought to the town by China's disappearance is galling to the good people of Hammouth proper, but soon enough more personal matters reassert their sway. Among the residents is Miranda, a university professor and the formidable leader of the local book group. She and her husband, Kenyon, an NGO bureaucrat with a startling secret, have almost bankrupted themselves by taking on a tremendous mortgage. Their lumpish, unloved teenage daughter, Hettie, is an antisocial monster. Catherine and Alex Butterworth, who have recently moved to Hammouth, feel isolated and rebuffed by their neighbors. Their 36-year-old, morbidly obese son, David, is coming to visit with what he is presenting as his boyfriend, Mauro. Mauro, a beautiful, Italian opportunist, is not interested in David – though he does have a self-destructive habit which has made him a pariah. Sylvie, an artist whose current work involves cutting out pictures of erect penises for decoupage, wonders when Tony, whom she has allowed to live in her house since his marriage fell apart, will move on. Sam, genial owner of the town's specialty cheese shop, and his domestic partner, Harry, are happy enough, but difficulties surround the planning of the next meeting of "the Bears," a group of men ("all middle-aged, mostly fairly hairy, mostly bearded, and comfortably a touch overweight") who convene periodically for orgies.
Hensher can be cruel, though rather cheerfully so, with his characters' appearance and unlovely ways; and he is positively brutal with the gawping, fast-food chomping, TV-soused, fantasy-addicted lower orders. Nevertheless, despite one abduction and four deaths (two of them murder), the novel is a surprisingly happy one, culminating in a gratifying act of civic vandalism and the growth of friendship among an odd assortment of people.
Described at times with gossipy particularity and exultant cattiness, life in Hammouth is a 21st-century version of life in E. F. Benson's Tilling ( of "Mapp and Lucia" fame). At other times, the town and its people are presented as anthropological subjects and the satire surrounding them is editorial and scathing. Taken as a whole, "King of the Badgers" does not possess the overall cohesiveness and narrative muscle of "The Northern Clemency," yet it is engrossing in all its parts and astute in its social observations; it is funny and sad, disgusting and disgusted, and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books for The Barnes & Noble Review.