issue 25: July - August 2001
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 Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
|Soul Street by
Rufus Goodwin: Educare Press, Seattle, Washington, U.S., 2001
Rufus Goodwin, a street poet who publishes in the homeless newspaper Spare Change in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has written an unusual novel that lingers long after the reading. The book jacket tells us that Goodwin is a New Yorker who lived and worked in journalism in Europe for twenty-one years as a foreign, Vatican and freelance correspondent, and who skirted the edges of homelessness in the 1980s. He brings his experience to bear in the protagonist Crusty - a heavy-set, well-weathered "bum" around sixty years of age - who has staked his territory around the Boston Commons where he begs for change and is given to brief soliloquies on the "soul," which he believes he and the pigeons possess. The generally taciturn Crusty is a kind of cross between a Chaplinesque vagabond and Chance from Jerzy Kosinskis Being There. He elicits little sympathy; he is, in fact, just there.
The many practical problems of street living (where to wash up, where to shit) fill a part of each day, but the boredom, numbness and general apathy that come from living with no money and no means of interacting with society form a strong part of his character. Theres no solace at the shelter where he gets beat up by Vietnam veteran Meathead, a bully thug. His only friend is bag lady Madeleine, who occasionally "does him" in the park (quick hand job), shares her meager food and fantasizes about the two of them marrying.
The intriguing thing about Crusty (certainly in fiction) is that he is not some pitiable character who has been beat down by circumstance - unless circumstance is the human condition - or a bad guy reduced to paying for his sins. Like those other street characters, Vladimir and Estragon, in Waiting for Godot, Crusty seems to have been born to his calling. He seems to be tuned in to a different drummer (the souls of the pigeons?) that passersby occasionally recognize in some dim way and respond to according to their own fears and needs: super wealthy businessman James Lowry sees something of his grandfather in Crusty, and in an ill-judged, spontaneous gesture decides to take Crusty inside the posh and private Union Club for lunch; a Swedish actress responds by giving him fifty-dollar bills (as much as a therapist would earn, she says) and talking to him on his bench.
In Part Two of the novel we are given a glimpse of Crustys past: he is on the dock in Piraeus, Athens in the early 1970s, feeling confused, dislocated. He seems to be with a beautiful, young woman, but he doesnt know where she is. Mesmerized by a sailor staring at him with binoculars from a Soviet ship, Crusty manages to get on board and asks for political asylum in Russia. Thus begins nearly 20 years of drifting through life as a Soviet factory worker (and puzzling the hell out of the Soviets as he doesn't seem to be interested in politics or much of anything else except having food and shelter) until the old Soviet system falls apart and he is deported for having become a drag on the Russian welfare system.
Back in the U.S. everything is bigger, newer, stranger. He seeks shelter in a dumpster his first night back, but is awakened as a garbage truck hoists the dumpster. Wanting only an undisturbed existence with food and a place to sleep, he quickly finds life on the street conducive to his needs. In what would appear to be a case of Alzheimers, Crusty soon forgets his past life and lives, like a gentle animal, from moment to moment.
Goodwin mixes the realistic detail of street-living existence with increasingly improbable scenes: the entire Russian episode, for example; the night he takes Madeleine (and her grocery cart) to the Ritz hotel after the Swedish actress gives him $500.00; and the final scenes of the novel in which coincidence is blatantly improbable. It is as though the narrator, like Crusty, is bit out of kilter; the story never leaps entirely beyond the realm of realism, but it pushes it to its utmost limits.
Goodwin is a highly skilled stylist who, like Beckett, poses the big questions. Once a Harvard psychologist pays some bums $25.00 apiece to answer questions for a survey. When Crusty says at one point, "The difference between the pigeons and us is that they have a soul," the psychologist perks up. "What is the soul?" he asks Crusty. He never quite gets his answer and neither do we, but Soul Street is an intelligent, poetic exploration of the question. J.A.
Shadows by Chris Sheerin: Marino Books (Dublin), 2001
In the prologue Seamus Doherty lies dying, blaming himself and his simple bastard of a da for his predicament. How and why this situation arose begins with him as a boy in the very early 70s on the Creggan estate in Londonderry. His dad, also called Seamus, is a drinker and seems like just another useless, simple nobody, but with the start of the Troubles Seamus Sr. cuts down on the booze and gets involved with the I.R.A (the Boys) defending the estate from impending Brit invasion. But Seamus Sr. gets shot, and later at school his son hears the first rumours that his dad might have been a tout, giving valuable information to the very people he despised.
Seamus grows into a teenager in a strange world of army occupation and random violence. "Im going to the shops, Ma," could mean just that or another opportunity to join his mates, wrap a vinegar-soaked scarf around his mouth to counter the effects of CS gas, and throw rocks, half-bricks or petrol bombs at the occupying Brits. His little gang of friends though are about to find themselves on the wrong side of the Boys, and when this happens Seamus will have a slight difficulty understanding just who his friends really are. He also pushes his luck by falling in love with Elaine, a Protestant with a mean brother. Events become darker when a patrolling Special Branch car picks up the boy and puts him under pressure to reveal things he is totally ignorant of. To get to the youth, his enemies tell stories about his father which, if true, would make Seamus side out to be liars and worse. He has no one to turn to and though he tries to better his lot and lead his life as normally as possible, with dreams of fleeing to England, the confusion of the times just wont let him; he has lost control of his destiny or has he? As sides and battle lines are drawn, other characters are equally caught up in the times sitting on the fence is not an option but, unlike Seamus, most still have control over their lives.
Sheerins plot is, at first, not particularly original the Catholic boy meets Protestant girl verging on cliché but it holds your interest as he manages, via various characters and their viewpoints, to show the stupidity and the sadness known as 'the Troubles'. He does this simply, without preaching and without reverting to sentimentality. One Republican likens their struggle to the Vietcong fighting for freedom against a heavily-armed, rich and powerful country; but it is Dave Conners, the Special Branch man - and to all extents and purposes Seamuss foe - who usually brings everything down to earth:
It is Conners who gives Seamus a possible way out and the final, totally
unexpected, twist at the end made me say Jeez out loud. I can imagine many
Brits and Irish being put off by a book about the Troubles it is too close and
still too fragile - but it is worth reading Sheerins take on events as he lays the
whole sorry mess out so simply (too simply?) that one questions just how the stupidity has
gone on for so long. M.G.S.
|By The Sea by
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Bloomsbury, U.K., 2001
A man in his fifties arrives in England from Zanzibar without the proper papers. His passport says he is Rajab Shaaban and the only English he appears to be able to speak is to ask for political asylum. He has a small box made of a scented wood known in Arabic as "Ud-al-qimari" the wood of the Khmers (Cambodia). This is taken - stolen- by the immigration officer, an action that Shaaban seems to regard as poetic justice. Later he is taken from the holding camp and placed in a seedy B&B on the coast of the English Channel. Here he comes clean that he can speak English and his story begins to unfold.
He is really Omar Saleh who used to run a furniture shop in Zanzibar. Back in his country, Omar was befriended by a Persian merchant who is attracted to an ebony table that he eventually buys to offer as a gift to the real Rajab Shaabans eldest son, Hassan. Later the merchant borrows a large amount of money off Omar and as security leaves a note saying that in a similar business agreement with Shabaan, he obtained the rights to Shaabans house. Should he not return, then Omar could have the house. He not only doesnt return, but he runs away with lover Hassan who is (almost) never seen again. Because of his own business problems, Omar is forced to take possession of the house and its contents. One day Shaabans other son, Ismail, comes to the shop to ask for the return of the ebony table as it was not part of the house but the property of his missing brother. Omar, rather cruelly, refuses.
Jump ahead: Ismail is now known as Latif and is working as a
writer/teacher in a London university. When the social services contact him about an
asylum seeker from his own country who cant speak English he is amazed to learn that
the person is using his dead fathers name and guesses that it must be Omar. He
decides to go and see the man who helped destroy his home.
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