Barcelona Review

Book Reviews:
issue 21

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Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez
Atom by Steve Aylett
Men on Men 2000  ed. David Bergman & Karl Woelz
Hell’s Angel by Sonny Barger with Keith and Kent Zimmerman
The Second Coming: The Passion of Joe Panther by Andrew Masterson
Killing Time by Caleb Carr
Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation by  Martin Millar

index of book reviews for all issues

Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK  carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.
Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez: Vintage Contemporaries, U.S. 2000; Serpent's Tail, U.K. 2000

Set in contemporary Spanish Harlem, author Quiñonez’s first novel gives voice to its Puerto Rican community, following the tradition of the Nuyorican writers of the 1960s and 70s. Poet Pedro Pietri is twice quoted by Quiñonez from Pietri’s 1973 American classic "Puerto Rican Obituary" (a mock epic of the Puerto Rican community in the U.S.), and poet Miguel Piñero’s "La Bodega Sold Dreams" provides the novel’s title. The thematic strain of these early writers - working to raise the consciousness of the first-generation Puerto Ricans who arrived in the U.S. in pursuit of the American Dream, often to end up on welfare or unemployed and typically exploited for their second-class emigrant status - purposely turned to the anti-lyrical street language of the people to deliver their message, which was to look into themselves and their cultural heritage rather than seek the elusive Anglo-American dream.

Quiñonez attempts to portray the third and fourth generations of this community, which in many ways remain the same although this hipper, younger generation isn’t so keen on settling for 10-14 hour minimum-wage jobs when fast money (i.e., drug sales) is there for the taking. That’s part of the life in El Barrio - as TV and B-movies constantly love to home in on - while on the flip side there are young people working their way through college and those who’ve become real contenders in the white-collar "Anglo" professions. No news there either. The problem Quiñonez faces at the outset is how to reinvent and individualize these stereotypes. He has some difficulty pulling this off - in fact, we even have a hot-blooded Latino mama who stabs her man for being unfaithful - and William Bodega’s dream isn’t altogether convincing, but Quiñonez does present a highly readable, engaging tale that ultimately shows the extraordinary difficulties of rising out of - or living within - El Barrio with a positive sense of personal identity and moral values intact.

Sapo ("toad" in Spanish) is a drug-runner and all-round gopher for Willie Bodega (born William Iriarry), who has climbed his way to wealth through street dealing and cunning. Bodega may sell drugs, but it’s how he uses the money that counts, right? Under the name of The Harry Goldstein Real Estate Agency (and managing to escape the IRS) Bodega has bought up one after another of the many wrecked and decaying buildings in East Harlem and renovated them into spacious, low-cost housing developments for the people. He’s created artists’ workshops and scholarship funds; he helps those who can’t make rent or downpayments on small businesses; he is, though not high profile, a known and highly revered name in the neighborhood. The brains behind the legal wheelings and dealings is fellow Puerto Rican-American Edwin Nazario, a first-rate lawyer who knows every trick in the book and fully uses them.

Our protagonist, Julio Mercado, known as "Chino" for his high, flat cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes (traits from his father’s Ecuadorian heritage), was a classmate of Sapo’s and the two are still friends even though Chino is now married to the pretty, Pentecostal chica of high morals, Blanca (with a wild sister known as Negra). Pregnant with their first child, Blanca and Chino both work minimum-wage jobs while attending Hunter College. As if this isn’t difficult enough for Chino, Sapo ropes him into meeting Bodega who wants this college boy to become a part of his team to help take ownership of Spanish Harlem and create a self-sustaining, upwardly mobile community. He suggests law as the profession Chino should pursue. Chino listens, but knows that the dream stems from drug money, which doesn’t sit well. No need for quick decisions: Bodega has something else he wants from Chino that doesn’t seem to compromise him: Bodega has always been in love with his teenage girlfriend Veronica (now going by the Anglicized "Vera"), who left him to marry a rich, older Cuban. Vera is Blanca’s aunt and so Chino is related. Bodega will rent a much bigger and nicer apartment to Chino and Blanca if Chino will simply track down Vera in Miami. Sound too easy? It is, but Chino bites and gets his new apartment.

As he drifts deeper into Bodega’s world, its uglier side rears up: a reporter who was about to expose Bodega’s real estate scam is murdered - and it looks like Sapo is the assassin. . . . but who gave the order? Then the fiery and vivacious Vera hits town and reunites with Bodega - ba, ba, ba, boom! There is, too, someone else - one Aaron Fischman - who wants Bodega’s turf. The action picks up and ultimately leads to an unexpected twist at the end that settles all counts.

At times verging on stereotypes within familiar enough plot scenarios, and ending on a predictable moral high note, there are points one can find to criticize in the novel (Bodega, who has been called a Latino Jay Gatsby, falls far short of Fitzgerald’s creation although the comparison is apt), but the pacing and rhythm is good, the writing solid and straightforward with a street-savvy cool and some very good descriptive passages rich in concrete detail, and it does take one smack into today’s Barrio, which may not hold many surprises but poignantly conveys the stigma (especially seen in the attitude of Anglo high school teachers) and isolation of a community that has tried to follow Pietri’s advice of looking for self-worth within itself and its own heritage (difficult when one of the Anglo teachers "kept telling us boys we were all going to end up in jail and that all the girls were going to end up hooking") - while continuing to claw for that dream. Quiñonez ends with this message, which forms a part of Bodega’s own dream:

A new language means a new race. Spanglish is the future. It’s a new language being born our of the ashes of two cultures clashing with each other. You will use a new language. Words they might not teach you in that college. Words that aren’t English or Spanish but at the same time are both. Now that’s where it’s at. Our people are evolving into something completely new.

This echoes a poem by Aurora Levins Morales, "Child of the Americas" (1986):

. . . .
I am new. History made me. My first language was Spanglish.
I was born at the crossroads and I am whole.

If the Nuyoricans thought in terms of the melting pot (and feared its cultural dilution), the later generations speak of the mosaic, or the salad bowl. Despite all, they’re more optimistic - and interestingly speak very little Spanglish. But, as Quiñonez’s own Barrio would show, that culture clash has not diminished. And following the Anglo role model - taking a law degree, for example - can lead to a double-edged sellout. A somewhat flawed but auspicious debut; I look forward to seeing what comes of his second novel, now in progress. J.A.

Atom by Steve Aylett: Phoenix House (Orion), U.K. 2000; Four Walls Eight Windows, U.S.

Michael Moorcock has tagged Aylett as the master of "toon-noir" - a fitting epithet for the author such novels as Slaughtermatic and Toxicology [see TBR reviews]. We’re back in Beerlight City here, which for any newcomers is a familiar enough American city if one were to view it on a high dose of lysergic acid and a boost of laughing gas.

Chief Henry Blince, the local sheriff, and his underling Benny the Trooper still head up the skewed area of law enforcement, but our real protagonist in this one is private dick, Taffy Atom ("Sanity’s a virginity of the mind, baby"), who houses in a fishtank a kind of talking goldfish monster the size of a bulldog with a snub face that looks to have been grafted on: Jed Helms, security officer. Technical advisor Maddy (Madison Drowner) is the third member of the crew, who get roped into helping solve the mystery of who bombed the local City Brain Facility, "where hundreds of famous brains . . . including that of Tony Curtis, were kept on ice." Someone wanted a specific brain from that facility and apparently made off with it.

Mobster Eddie Thermidor (whose gang fort was "industrial gothic . . . tempered by Bren Shui, the art of exchanging negative energy with the environment through the correct placement of firearms around the home") and his band of thugs want to get a hold of the missing brain. So do Dr. DeCrow and the Candyman. And so does "Dumpy" Turow and his sideman "Joanna" (Joe Aniseed).

Just who’s working for and against whom is one big tangle, but Harry Fiasco - one of Thermidor’s flunkies - was seen at the scene of the crime and his ex-girlfriend, Kitty Stickler ("like a flashy ad with no trace of a product"), once went out with "Joanna," so . . . that’s something to go on! Too bad that "Joanna," who solicited Atom’s help, uncertainly read Atom’s card - which, if you pay attention, reads "Private Defective." Well, he tried to tell his boss that’s what he thought it said, but "Joanna," not being too bright anyway, gets blown off: ". . . you fool, what kind of idiot would advertise himself as defective"?

No matter, it takes Taffy Atom to solve this one, with the help of Maddy’s ballistic expertise, which boasts such artillery as the Syndication Bomb that can "strip the subtext from whatever situation it’s tripped in [and] leave everything meaningless for up to three hours"; or, put another way: "Rather than actually stripping the subtext from the blast site it converted the wave range into a living Updike novel, the subtext containing information everyone already knew - the end result [being] a shallow reality in which every move was a statement of the obvious."

I don’t want to give too much away, but the heisted brain fits right into this parallel universe and here’s a clue to the brain’s identity: "I never cribbed from Gogol . . . Any more than Schultz cribbed from me." And the joker behind the heist’s got big plans, big.

Part stand-up schtick, part loony-toon, and wholly no-holds-barred absurdist noir-genre satire of the cleverest order . . .Aylett’s wit and imaginative powers leave you wondering from what madly divine brain facility his particular genius is derived. J.A. [See the first Chapter of Atom in this issue of TBR. See also:]

Men on Men 2000: Best New Gay Fiction for the Millennium edited and with an introduction by David Bergman and Karl Woelz: Plume, U.S. 2000

This on-going anthology of new gay fiction, begun in 1986 and now into its 8th volume, has continually delivered a fine overview of the lives, loves, concerns and mores of the American gay community. I moved to Spain in 1987 and discovered Men on Men a couple years later. Having followed it throughout the 90s, I’ve been struck - and enlightened - by the differences between the U.S. and Barcelona, which as everyone knows boasts a thriving international gay community. While most themes are universal - the AIDS crisis, predominately; coming out - others are far different.

Take, for example, David Tuller’s story "Sperm-And-Egg Tango" which deals with a feisty, independent lesbian whose gay friend Jimmy is trying to talk her into having his child. She’s not keen on the idea at all, but agrees to go with Jimmy to the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Parenting Discussion Group of San Francisco, more commonly referred to as "the sperm-and-egg mixer." It wouldn’t surprise me if just such a group existed in my ex-city - and why not? - but the idea of any variation of such a group here in Barcelona is as alien to this city as to a small town in Kansas. Because this stage of evolution, of option, has not yet arrived in my adopted city. And so I read with interest in this year’s Men on Men that several stories deal with gay families with children - an area of growing importance and concern in the U.S.

Jim Provenzano’s "Quality Time" portrays a young, gay divorced father who has limited time to spend with his fifteen-year-old son since "She Who Will Not Be Discussed" got custody of the boy. It’s a poignant scenario, made all the more delicate by the father’s honest account of how his beautiful son "makes me think thoughts we are told not to think about our children." In Craig T. McWhorter’s "Silent Protest" a gay couple have a child, making their decision on parenthood by flipping a coin and "then sending a vial of sperm and an enormous check off to a surrogacy agency in another state." The narrator loses the flip of the coin, and later when the couple have problems and eventually separate, the painful question of custody arises. "Quiet Game" by William Lane Clark presents yet another tangled scenario of a gay man, Sonny, father of two sons, who has left his wife to live with his lover Andrew, the story’s narrator; Andrew and Sonny are raising the boys and again all is well until one day the free-spirited Sonny splits and once again tough custody questions arise.

"Erasing Sonny" by Kelly McQuain, one of the best stories, takes an altogether different turn and follows the turmoils of teen-aged Sonny whose sister’s wild-ass boyfriend brands him with an unwanted, foul-language tattoo. At first he tries to hide it from his Italian-American parents, but it is discovered and in the aftermath Sonny must come to grips with a newly emerging personal and sexual identity. Bruce Gordon’s "Home" also portrays a working-class boy’s tentative experiences with homosexuality while Alexander Chee’s "Gold" focuses on the mixed race of its young, gay protagonist. "The Color of Rain" by Michael Villane tells the story of a thirty-year-old heroin addict, who’d been abused by his uncle at age 7 and is now (still) a street punk turning tricks for easy cash. It’s a familiar enough story as it turns out, but well told.

Many selections inevitably deal with AIDS. In two stories, men secretly obtain blood samples from their partners in order to settle doubts on their HIV status. Relationships are often formed based on this information as HIV-negative men ask themselves whether or not they can handle involvement with an infected partner - even a presently healthy one, newly diagnosed. They can’t help envisioning excruciatingly painful future scenarios - familiar to them now - and some choose to just say no. . . and love is sadly lost. David Vernon’s "Arrival" begins happily enough as Kevin says to his infected partner "You’re not number one with a bullet anymore, sweetie. You’re number fourteen and on your way down. . . .You’re Bananarama. You’re Sheena Easton, babe." The encouraging statistics bolster Kevin, but when Joe gets sick, Kevin’s out the door.

Patrick Ryan’s "Second Island" sees another man wander from his cancer-ridden lover while vacationing in Marseilles in pursuit of a raffish street youth, the consequences of which prove dire, while Brian Bouldrey’s "The Holy Spirit Bank" presents a gay couple - one sick, one healthy - on holiday in Portugal where the unexpected exchange between the sick man and a spa attendant proves wry and tender. Richard McCann’s "The Universe, Concealed" is a moving account of an HIV-positive man’s reminiscences of friends and lovers lost, contemplated while he shares a weekend with a woman friend who lost her 12-year-old son - all deftly imbued with a life-affirming strain.

The most outstanding pieces in this collection of 20 stories are Edmund White’s "The Venice Story" - an excerpt from his latest novel, The Married Man, in which AIDS again plays a role - and Jim Grimsley’s "Boulevard." Grimsley’s story leaps out of the anthology for its originality and humor. Young Newell arrives in the city from a backward part of the country and begins working in a sex shop where gay films can be viewed by feeding quarters into the slots. Soon life imitates the art of porn film and the reader is left to ponder the implications.

The Men on Men series is an important cultural anthology that reveals the diverse array of concerns among the American gay community. If I were to offer one wee quibble, it would be the lack of brash, young voices such as Matthew Rettenmund’s protagonist in Boy Culture, a character who did not grow up with AIDS in the background and therefore ignores this scene as only the very young can. This is a disturbing voice and not so likable, but out there . . . and not just in America. The editors write that after a period of avoiding the topic, gay writers are beginning "to reexplore what has happened and is happening to them." Perhaps that explains it - everyone, even the very young, is in the process of evolving. And Men on Men continues to chart that evolution with depth, daring and sensitivity. This year’s editors have done a fine job; these stories are all literarily sound, and some superb; there is much insight to be gained in the reading and many characters and scenarios will long linger in memory. J.A. [Read Jim Grimsley’s "Boulevard" in this issue of TBR.]

Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and The Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club by Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger with Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Fourth Estate Limited (London) 2000

It would be impossible to write a history of the 1960s without mentioning the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club and one of its main founders, Sonny Barger. Their rise to infamy was rapid and rode the same 1950s wave as the Beats - but whereas the Beats and beatniks morphed into hippies, the Angels just changed the size of their death's head logo and got rid of the Nazi insignia. These are incredibly conservative people with an apparently good eye for business, be it selling the best - and for a while the only - LSD in Haight Ashbury during its 1966-67 heyday, or publicizing the many movies they would either star in or offer advice on. Just looking at the legal bumpf at the front of the book makes you very aware that the HAMC is a big American company and not a bunch of dimwitted hooligans with Harleys and guns - even their name is registered and that ‘C’ can also mean ‘Corporation’. I kid you not.

We already think we know a lot about this notorious club. By 1966 Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels had helped feed a growing interest (Barger hates both the book and Hunter) and Tom Wolfe would add a lot of information, mostly second hand, in his 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but no book has come from a genuine Hell’s Angel until now, so Barger’s own story should supply an awful lot of answers and set the record straight. Wrong. This really is Barger’s story, as much as he wants known; he won’t let anyone into the real secrets of the club and so for those gems one will have to continue to rely on the government ‘plants’ and their tell-alls. The one big surprise the ex-President of the Angels lets drop, however, is…whisper this… he and an awful lot of Angels don’t like Harley Davidsons and would much prefer a Honda, but being true-blue patriots and conservatives they can’t break the habit.

Born in 1939, Barger’s mother walked out when he was a toddler and his alcoholic dad did a pretty good job of keeping house and home going; but by sixteen Ralph Jr. forged his birth certificate and joined the army. It would take about two years before he was found out, but in that time he had pretty much learned what he wanted and that knowledge would go a long way towards the organization of the future motorcycle club. By the late fifties he was riding around on stripped-down bikes with other bored ex-army or navy buddies, just itching for something to do after stints in Korea. There were a lot of clubs already in existence; many were purely bike fanatics with no interest in the outlaw side of things, but quite a few had even chosen the same name that Barger had picked and were spoiling for some action. So allegiances were formed and rules, chapters, friends and enemies were slowly made. One forgets - with all the hype and legends that fly around - that the Hell’s Angels really were just a weekend club, with an annual ‘Run’. They had day jobs, houses, and drove cars. Bikes, and the club, were a passion that hard work or petty theft paid for and one rule was not to mess with an Angel’s day job.

The growing 60s peace movement brought the Angels to wide public attention when they sided with the government and physically attacked peace rallies; they even volunteered to be dropped behind Vietcong lines. Seeing as the hippies had girls who fucked like bunnies, the Angels weakened their anti-hippie stance and were soon entertaining (and being entertained by) the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and other hipsters.

Barger was a boozer and a cocaine man so passed a no-needle rule that would come back to haunt him. Various busts, fights and mayhem would see him in and out of prison and the book gets a bit bogged down in his legal battles. (There is a three-page ‘criminal history’ rundown at the end.) Luckily the Angels had lots of money and a good lawyer was usually at hand. Barger, in theory, should still be in a prison somewhere. As it is, he came down with throat cancer, thought this was a pretty dumb rap and, always the Angel, fought back and won, though he did lose his vocal cords.

Love him or hate him, the man is a legend of sorts, but this book doesn’t really get behind the façade. One questions how the Zimmerman brothers went about their task and how much they pushed their subject. If they were intimidated one could then understand the huge hole that makes up what should have been the all-important Altamont chapter. In the September issue of UK magazine Uncut there was a special article on Altamont which quoted witnesses. The weight of evidence doesn’t come down too well on the Stones but it also makes a mockery of Barger’s version of events. Over Altamont Barger is obviously lying to cover his beloved clan which means he could be bending the truth all along the line. How much is missing? Barger is not to blame here; he is in control and will tell the Zimmerman’s what they think they want to hear, but the end result is a bit like being trapped in a bar with an aging drunk thug and forced to listen to his sad world of gratuitous violence and general small-mindedness. The great advantage here, though, is that you can put the book down and walk away.

Some great photos but really of interest to those already besotted. The definitive book on HAMC (Club or Corporation) is yet to be written. M.G.S.

The Second Coming: The Passion of Joe Panther by Andrew Masterson: Flamingo (HarperCollins Australia) 2000

Back in issue 11 when I reviewed The Last Days: The Apocryphon of Joe Panther, I wrote: "Joe - street nutter or genuine Messiah? - is one of the most fascinating private detectives ever and one wonders if Masterson has future plans for his creation." He did, and Joe Panther is back in the aptly titled The Second Coming: The Passion of Joe Panther. I loved the wicked humour, the blasphemies and the originality of The Last Days and therefore approached the second book with trepidation. One, it’s a hard act to follow, even if the big finale of the first was a wee bit of a letdown; and two, having spent one book in the dubious company of Panther digging into his ‘history’, how could the second cover the same ground without repeating itself? Could a reader new to Joe Panther pick up on just who Panther thinks he is (Jesus Christ) and why?

My fears were unfounded. Masterson has delivered a beaut. The crime story-line in The Second Coming is much better, in fact - more in control, with the final clue to the identity of one of the killers coming down to the sort of quirky detail Colombo would spot. The Joe Panther side of things is also well handled. Now located in Perth, he is still a total murderous, violent, alcoholic, pissed-off bastard, now pushing heroin (but luckily for all not a user himself). He is also still the son of God/Yahweh and the Virgin Mary, and he still mangles Bible quotes: "Yea, though I walk through the alley, I will fear no evil". There is less emphasis on why Joe thinks he is Jesus; and, unless I am now anaesthetised to it, there appears to be less blasphemy.   A new reader will have no trouble jumping in with this second novel, though I do think it is worth tracking down a copy of The Last Days for the full, hilarious, irreverent low-down. As for The Second Coming. . .

One morning Joe wakes up in a back street after a heavy night on the ‘pop’. Nothing unusual about that - this is Joe Panther after all - but what makes this morning a little different is that lying next to him is a female with a rather large knife sticking out of her. Joe is reasonably certain he is not responsible but it is better to put the fear of Dad/God into the street-singer witness so the police don’t come calling. But the police come calling anyway, which is very bad news for the street singer when Joe later tracks him down - though he must be slipping as he somehow fails to kill him outright. With the finger of the law now pointed in his direction, Joe has to set the record straight while also helping the victim's lesbian frined Lazarette Binary (someone he forgot to make sure was dead when he left Melbourne, and now the mother of his unborn child). When other bodies begin to appear, the search for the killer becomes   more confusing, with weird lesbians and a religious cult all on the suspect list. When it comes to crawling into the underbelly of society, even the police realise it is better to have the nutcase Panther on their side, and an uneasy alliance is formed built on threats, mistrust, blackmail and bribery. For me, Joe Panther is still the most fascinating investigator of all time, so why not celebrate his birthday by buying The Second Coming this Christmas? For lovers of quirky and original crime fiction, it’s a classic. MGS

Availability in the northern hemisphere is a bit difficult. Nothing is currently available at but has The Last Days. Best bet is to go to Australia, try where there is currently (November) a 15% discount on The Second Coming.

Devil’s Island by Einar Kárason, Canongate Books (Scotland) 2000. Translated by David MacDuff and Magnus Magnusson.

The Icelandic original came out in 1983 as the first part of a trilogy. It sold over 30,000 copies, which is pretty impressive when you consider Iceland has a population of about 280.000. Set more or less in the 1950s, it deals with the aftermath of World War II when first the British, then the richer Americans, ‘invaded’ the island. This is explained in a very helpful forward by Magnus Magnusson.

In short, an impoverished island, dependent on fishing, is suddenly thrown into the modern world by the arrival of the troops. Money is to be made and peasants flee their turf huts to move to the city where the action is. The British leave behind their  Nissen huts, which look like huge oil barrels sliced in half from top to bottom, and these are quickly inhabited by the peasants who mostly work for the remaining Americans, both begrudging their existence while wanting their continued presence and money on the island long after war’s end.

The centre of attention in this run-down ‘barrack district’ is the family of an old fortune-teller, Karolíner, and her peaceful, laid-back husband Tommi. Gógó, their daughter, has been a breeding factory for all sorts of passing nationals and when she marries an American and emigrates to the States she leaves her surviving offspring - sons Baddi and Danni and daughter Dollí - in the hands of her parents. Then follow a series of anecdotes that seem to have no coherent line. Tommi appears to act as a focal point as Baddi grows up into a brat and miserable Dollí has an affair and can’t really work out what to do about the consequences or the baby. Then Baddi goes to the States to live with his mother and returns near the end of the book. The boy has turned into an Americanised Elvis-loving thug and, with his drunken gang, treats all around him like dirt. Karolíner is so besotted with her grandson that she can’t see his glaringly obvious bullying faults even as she witnesses his appalling behaviour.

Baddi is just another ‘hell’ the people have to put up with, along with the poverty, the cold and the boredom. There are suicides, murders, non-stop drunken fighting and extramarital affairs. But this harsh existence is told with gentle, ironic humour – there are no belly laughs but there is a resigned acceptance of the dire circumstances:  what will happen, happens. Tommi seems nonplussed that his grandson is destroying the home and savings that have taken so long and so much effort to acquire.

The reader looks down on all this from a distance. The omniscient narrative voice remains remote and there is no main protagonist to lead the reader through the bad and the good at a more human level - as, for example, Cider with Rosie does. This distance does make it difficult to ‘get into’ the book and the characters, as does the almost biblical ‘so and so begat so and so’ beginning and the jumpy time-line. It starts to smooth out in the middle and picks up with the return of Baddi towards the end, making you hope that Part Two is on the way so you can find out if the bastard gets his just rewards.

The translation throws up one or two nice expressions - rather than give the English version to a swear-word, they have been literally translated, giving us the rather good ‘go shit in your pants’ and the excellent ‘prickhole’. There is a lovely mistake, typo I guess, at the end where ‘beetle’ is spelt ‘beatle’ - so famous, they’ve now taken over the language. M.G.S.

Killing Time by Caleb Carr: Random House, 2000

Deep Joy - this is easily the worst book of the year! To back up that statement I have to commit the cardinal sin of giving away the ending, so if you wish to purchase the book, I suggest you don’t read the last paragraph.

2024: A small group, made up of scientists, thinkers and a mega-rich brother and sister try to show the world that the Internet’s ‘information highway’ - through its glut of information - is, in fact, killing off humanity. They intend to combat this crisis by disseminating ‘dis-information’; i.e., by changing, altering and doctoring history. So they make Winston Churchill responsible for the First World War and change an image of the assassin of the (female) President of the USA (in the present year 2024) from Chinese to Afghan. One wonders why Churchill triggering World War One would matter a flying fish to the people in 2024 but, anyway, all these attempts at imposing misinformation prove too effective and people believe it one hundred percent, which means Europe and England don’t get on (did they ever?), and - get this - America invades Afghanistan. Seeing that their attempts at turning the world around are failing, the team then try and sort out the mess.

These ‘revolutionaries’ fly around in an ‘amazing machine’ far more advanced than anything else any other government has. It can go underwater or into the stratosphere and even disguise itself as a cloud. It has a deflection/force field shield that makes it virtually impossible to shoot down. It also has paintings and candlesticks and other delicate niceties on board, and lamb is served at dinner.

This novel is an insult to sci-fi and to the reader’s intelligence. At first I thought it could be an appallingly amateurish attempt at a homage to Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with the futuristic ship mimicking the Nautilus while the slightly mad genius is actually trying to do good but killing a lot of people in the process. The overuse of words like ‘amazing,’ ‘fantastic,’ ‘extraordinary,’ ‘machine’, and so on, plus the rather childish plot, could have made a good pulp comic in the 1950s - but not a novel in 2000, especially one based on 130-year-old ideas.

The characters are comic-book stereotypes. The narrator, Gabriel Wolfe, is a throwaway cardboard cut-out but at least the genetically altered brother and sister, Malcolm and Larissa Tressalian, have genuine grudges and reasons for their behaviour, which includes killing their own parents for forcing the genetic modifications on them. Of course, Larissa has to be stunningly beautiful (yawn) and fall for Wolfe, whose wooden personality must be an advantage.

The plot is flawed in major ways: for example, one questions the general failure of the overall plan when the ‘rebels’ kill the person who was about to do just what they wanted - reveal their misinformation that an Afghan killed the President. But two of the biggest blunders are:  The Tressalian siblings’ plan is to make out that George Washington was murdered by his rich backers because he was going to denounce them and speak out against the way politics in general is manipulated by rich, powerful businessmen. This is meant to point a finger at the way the current (2024) government is being influenced – in fact, totally controlled by non-elected industrialists. Yet Tressalian himself has virtually financed Scotland’s independence from England and, to make sure the Scottish government doesn’t reveal the whereabouts of his secret island hideaway, he continues to subvert their constitutional powers with generous amounts of money. This not only makes him a hypocrite but also calls into question all his motives. He is rich and powerful and has decided the world should be run differently, his way being of course correct; so, like Captain Nemo he takes the law into his own hands rather than going through any democratic process. All a bit fascist in other words.

The last paragraph: At the end Carr makes the biggest mistake of all. The rich genius, Malcolm, goes back in time and ‘fixes’ the world. Animals return to Africa, huge, clean cities appear, and so on and so on . . . . but the ‘amazing’ ship and its crew remain where they are and marvel at what is happening around them. Impossible. First logical law of time travel, should it exist, is that what you change in the past will alter the future. The ship and its crew only exist and are only where they are because they are trying to save the world. If the world never needed saving in the first place, then they obviously wouldn’t be there; the ship would never have needed to be built and so on. This huge, grave, howling blunder on the author’s part totally shoots this rather sorry book out of the sky, making it a complete and utter joke. Killing Time? Wasting it, more like. M.G.S.

Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation by Martin Millar. I.M.P Fiction, 2000

First published in 1987, Martin Millar’s book gets a reprint thanks to I.M.P. If I have spotted a recurring theme in the books published by this house, it is that the main character is in some way alienated or paranoid. This time round it is the turn of comic collector Alby Starvation who haunts the turf of Brixton (London). He has reasons to be paranoid. He pushes sulphate in the first place, so will always have the fear of the Old Bill feeling his collar, and he has also noticed that a Chinese man is hot on his tail for some reason.

Then there is the contract killer the Milk Marketing Board have hired to rub him out. No, seriously, Alby is not paranoid about this. The poor guy just happens to be allergic to milk, something he accidentally discovered when he stopped drinking the stuff and all his ills practically disappeared overnight. Telling friends about his recovery leads to a newspaper article which leads to TV interviews which lead to a nationwide discovery that an awful lot of people are allergic to milk. Sales plummet, ergo the boy must die. Heaven knows he’s miserable now.

Add to this a mixture of deadbeats, users, failing supermarket managers, shoplifters, security guards, the assassin, two mad computer-game Orientals, a treasure-hunting professor and a varied cast of Brixton personalities, and you are heading close to a very messy farce. The Alby passages, told in the first person, are wonderful:   funny and sharp, full of the miseries of life and living, the whole horror of waking up made worse by knowing someone is out to kill you before you even get any older or sicker. These humorous little gems keep the rest of the book afloat as it seems rushes towards one of those inevitable showdowns where lots of people all meet in the same place and screaming chaos ensues - the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World syndrome, which we’ve all had our fill of, especially in film, and it’s not a pretty sight. To Millar’s credit, however, he handles his Waterloo with a deft hand - in fact, I think he actually pulled it off.

On a completely different note, one thing I found strange about the book is its accidental historical relevance. Within months, the rock music scene, lovingly described here, was about to get turned upside-down with the arrival of Acid House. Sulphate would almost disappear off the map for about ten years and the British literary scene was about to get a kick up the butt from Millar’s very own Scotland. Even comic books seem to have bitten the dust. Alby Starvation’s world was about to change in a way more dramatic than an assassin’s bullet. Check out the author and his other books at   M.G.S.

© 2000 The Barcelona Review
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