It's immediately easy to see why this was longlisted for the Booker and Jacobson's earlier comedy of sexual manners, No More Mister Nice Guy, wasn't - it's longer, denser, more intricate and frankly less out-and-out entertaining. The theme - an eternal for Jacobson - is similar: "men and women, women and men - it'll never work. Or will it?" The novel has two protagonists (because, even though they both have wives who play equally important parts in the book, with Jacobson it's the men who tell the tale, as always), Marvin Kreitman - "the luggage baron of South London" - and Charlie Merriweather - half of the husband-and-wife gestalt-entity children's author C.C. Merriweather (his wife is also called Charlie).
Charlie is faithful, if not uxorious - he has never slept with a woman other than his wife, but the question of what it would be like nags at him constantly. The reason it nags at him is because Kreitman (and this anomaly is never resolved in the book - Kreitman always referred to by surname, Charlie by first name, perhaps to make the one "good" and the other "bad") has five mistresses, and appears to be having the time of his life. Or is he? The two friends have never adequately discuss the relative merits of fidelity and promiscuity; indeed Charlie feels they have been spending the last twenty years avoiding the issue. And so he suggests they swap roles.
Don't get excited. It's not "Run for Your Wife!" If it's filthy sex and three-in-a-bed romps you're after, go back to No More Mister Nice Guy (which does it all, and more, hilariously and brilliantly). Who's Sorry Now?, as the title suggests, is an altogether more thoughtful piece, and the plot itself - such as it is - takes place almost in the background. The surface, meanwhile, is populated richly and densely with the husbands' and wives' - and their children's - thoughts and feelings and dialogues and interactions. In that sense it's an old-fashioned novel, concerned with the inner life and moral conundrums - but then Jacobson makes it clear as early as page 6 that he has no truck with the modish and depthless ("if these days ... but to hell with these days"). Instead he keeps the reader interested by his impeccable style and aplomb - there is literally not a bad sentence, not a word out of place, in the whole 326 pages - and a dark wit that surfaces less frequently than in his earlier books, but is all the more unforced and welcome for it.
Howard Jacobson is a great writer who deserves to be as highly praised as those American big boys whom I can now see he resembles - the Roths, the Updikes, the Bellows - but, more importantly, deserves to be much more widely read than they. The best way for that to happen is for Who's Sorry Now? to win its place on the shortlist and to go on to win the Prize. Are you reading this, Booker Prize panel? (If you're reading this after Who's Sorry Now? failed even to leap the first hurdle, then think of this review as a missive from a more hopeful age. Look, I was wrong - just let it go, will you?)