Bad News by Edward St Aubyn (1992) 242 p.

The second of five books in Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, Bad News re-enters Patrick’s life at the age of 22: a trust fund gadabout in the depths of a serious heroin addiction. His hated father has died, and the novel covers several days in Patrick’s life as he travels to New York City to collect his ashes.

It’s an interesting choice, to write novels which are effectively glimpses into hugely different periods spanning a character’s entire life. Patrick is a pretty rotten person: a self-pitying, misanthropic posh boy who uses and abuses those close to him to get what he wants, which is usually drugs. But at no point do we dislike him; we merely pity him, because after reading Never Mind we’re all too aware of the reasons he’s like this. He’s entirely a product of his abusive father, and it’s terribly sad to see what the innocent five-year-old boy of the first book has become.

St Aubyn’s prose is as wonderful as ever; deeply evocative without being overwrought, literary yet readable, crisp and clear as a bell. Patrick travels between the richest and poorest spheres of New York life in his quest for heroin, which involves some pretty gut-wrenching Palahniukian scenes. Even in the age of meth I think a lot of people are most squeamish about heroin, because it combines the fear of hard drugs with the common phobia of syringes. I don’t consider myself easily grossed out, but there was one particular chapter in which Patrick (driven by desperation) goes into the scummiest of Lower East Side heroin dens, notices but ignores the crust of dried blood in the syringe he’s given, drops the syringe in a toilet puddle while trying to shoot up, misses the vein and injects directly underneath his skin, and, well… maybe it’s just because it was a sweltering day on the Underground and I hadn’t slept or eaten much in the past 24 hours, but I actually felt physically sick and had to stop reading. St Aubyn is a really masterful writer, to go so easily from these depths of depravity to the equally-but-differently depraved gentlemen’s clubs of Manhattan, and to do it in such a precise, laconic prose style.

It’s because he’s writing from experience, of course – he was raped by his own father as a child and became a heroin addict in his 20s, before eventually rebuilding his life and then writing a fictionalised version of himself in Patrick Melrose. If I didn’t know there were further books I would have expected Patrick to dreamily overdose and drift away at the end of this one. Fortunately, we can look forward to seeing him recover in the next glimpse of his life, the third book in the series, Some Hope.