The chief literary critic of The Times recently described Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan (the cover is shown on the home page) as a novel “about political corruption in the Boris Johnson era”. I’m not sure that’s right. My dictionary defines an era as “a long and distinct period of history”, and while it was often distinctly chaotic, BoJo’s tenure of 10 Downing Street didn’t last even three years.

He doesn’t personally get a mention in this book but the pandemic is alluded to more than once in a story that very much brings in dodgy politicos. And there’s plenty of shady Russian money. At one point a journalist who is a heroine of sorts says: “You know the Russians paid for Brexit, right? It was their money that made the Tories believe London was invincible.” Elsewhere, of one such Russian (absolutely not a hero!), O’Hagan writes: “Yuri wanted, more than anything, the attention of meatheads and drug dealers, hookers and party boys, art-crook impresarios and online pirates.” In a review in The Guardian, Xan Brooks wrote: “Yuri…is emphatically not Evgeny Lebedev. But they may once have shared the same infinity pool.” You may recall that Johnson gave Lebedev a peerage in his resignation honours list.

The main character is Professor Campbell Flynn – “art historian and celebrity academic”, as the book describes him. He lives in a nice square in Islington, North London, just off the Caledonian Road (which runs from King’s Cross to Holloway). He has a hellacious sitting tenant and his “appetite for controversy and novelty” leads him to strike up a (non-sexual) relationship with a young male student, Milo Mangasha. He sees himself as a mentor to the young man; maybe even a friend. Milo, on the other hand, sees Flynn and one or two of his wealthy but unsavoury contacts and relatives as an opportunity to disrupt some of the inequalities of life in a big way. Flynn duly gets lured into the delights of bitcoin and more on the dark web, which one knows is not going to be a good idea for him.

Thornhill Square in London N1, home to Campbell Flynn in this novel (and fictional home to Dominic Cummings when he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2019 TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War)

Flynn’s character rather reminded me of David Markham in J.G. Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People, with the constant and reckless searching for adventure in areas of life which essentially defy the character’s understanding. As his wife, Elizabeth, who is a therapist, says to her analyst one day: “He wanted life to be like an artwork, and it never quite is.”

The contrasting lives of London are well drawn: Flynn and his lectures in art galleries and lunches at posh restaurants; Milo and his rapper and gang-member friends and the girlfriend with whom he intends to escape that life – and also leave behind her brother and his people-smuggling operation. The novel is long (641 pages) and very eclectic. It is also very enjoyable.

The book has, perhaps inevitably, drawn comparison with Tom Wolfe’s 1988 masterpiece about New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is high praise indeed. What I would say is this, which doesn’t always happen. I think the final connection between Campbell and Milo is very well handled. Unlike an egg, you can’t beat a good ending.