by Rich Hall

Rich Hall's no stranger to the printed word. In America, his book Self-Help For The Bleak was something of a cult bestseller, and Sniglets - an impulse-buy volume inventing words for things that aren't in the dictionary - was so successful it spawned half-a-dozen sequels.

Unfortunately, his first British effort looks unlikely to do quite so well.

Firstly, don't be deceived by the title. This is a fragmented collection of 41 stories, essays and flights of fancy, all too short to let anything snowball. As Hall says in the cover notes: "This is not a novel - my feet itch too much to commit to long-term storytelling."

Thus it's rather like one of those unsatisfying collections of newspaper columns - and it comes as no surprise to find that a few of these pieces have previously appeared in The Scotsman and The Guardian.

Others will ring a bell with anyone familiar with Hall's sublime stand-up - he text laden with smart asides and with the same angry pace of a comic in full, visceral (CHK) flight.

And others still bear the hallmarks of failed stand-up ideas - trains of though that couldn't quite be fashioned into routines that have been rescued, recycled and committed to print instead. Most are mildly amusing, but some just don't seem to work at all.

Hall's problem is that each short story is based on one central idea, and usually an absurd one at that. There's often nothing to draw you in, so if you don't buy into that single gag, those few pages will leave you cold.

The opener, for example, about his grandfolks owning a ramshackle nuclear power plant is a bit too close to Monty Burns's edifice in The Simpsons to work. Similarly his account of how he spent 9/11 has a decent pay-off, but the central conceit is just too awkward to believe.

There are also a couple of stand-up standards here - the stupid warning signs on products and even the Eighties observational stalwart of the Baby On Board stickers ("Well, I was gonna plough into them, but now..") makes a fleeting appearance.

Interestingly, though, the best stories shun the drive for gags, and instead slowly build up quirky character studies, most often set in the remote, wide-open plains of Montana that Hall knows so well.

His child's-eye view of Uncle Roman, who sells swimming pools door-to-door, and the dispossessed worker who becomes a folk hero, then villain, after embarking upon a journey never to use a public road, are delightfully warm and witty episodes.

It would be nice to see Hall abandon the scattergun approach of the collected essays and develop such talents into a full-blown novel.

That said, the short chapters of Things Snowball are certainly a boon to the attention-deficient, and it does make for an easy, airport lounge read.

But ultimately it's frustrating that there is nothing to sink your teeth into - and all the more disappointing if you already know Hall as one of the best stand-ups around.

Things Snowball is published by Abacus at £9.99. It is available from Amazon at £7.99, click here to buy it.

Steve Bennett
November 8, 2002

Published: 22 Sep 2006

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