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Book Reviews: issue 19

The Keepers of the Truth by Michael Collins
The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins
Under the Skin by Michael Faber
Born Free by Laura Hird
Canteen Culture by Ike Eze-anyika
Afraid to Death by Marc Behm

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Issue 19

The Keepers of the Truth by Michael Collins: Phoenix House, U.K. 2000

In an archetypal small Midwestern town a local newspaper, the Daily Truth, is about to fold. No wonder. The rest of the town has folded already. It was once a bustling industrial community with factories of all sorts. Now, the factories are closed down. In this post-industrial era, all that’s left are strip malls, fast food chains and decaying buildings. One of the town’s wealthiest residents is the loner, Bill, whose father had a thriving refrigerator business and whose grandfather set the capital rolling by being the first to bring ice to the area. Thirtysomething Bill now lives alone in the family mansion on the outskirts of town and works as the lone reporter for the Daily Truth. He’s been to college, but he could never do well on the LSAT exams - filled with logic problems - and therefore could not make it into law school. So he remains in his hometown and works for Sam, the grizzled old newspaper man. The only other employee is Ed, an even-keel, aging photographer who drinks Pepto-Bismo from the bottle. The three sit around the office; Sam cooks tuna melts in his toaster oven and they drink whiskey.

Bill usually reports on bake sales or high school events, but when the father of bad boy, steroid-muscled Ronny Lawson goes missing and his finger later appears in Ronny’s home, then news picks up. Everyone suspects Ronny of having murdered and cut up his dad. The search is on for the body - or the body parts. Ronny can’t yet be held in jail as a suspect, so he continues his work at Denny’s as a fast food cook on the night shift. High school kids come around Denny’s and chant "Where’s your Dad?!" while Ronny laps up the attention. Bill takes to hanging out at Denny’s at night to try to get some information out of Ronny. The author’s portrayal of the people who haunt places like Denny’s in the middle of the night - loners seeking refuge in a cup of coffee and some conversation with a waitress - nails them precisely; and not surprisingly, solitary Bill fits right in. It is both humorous and moving to watch Bill studying his old LSAT test book to help pass the time at Denny’s, breaking his brain to crack one of those math puzzles involving speed, time, and distancge.

Ronny Lawson’s ex-wife, the pretty white-trash young mom Teri, usually referred to as "Ronny’s estranged," is another lead Bill tracks down in his role as news reporter-cum-detective. Ronny’s estranged becomes fascinated by him - and his money - and soon Bill is taking her and her kid to get ice cream and bringing Kentucky Fried Chicken around to the trailer (the only "home-cooked food" the boy has ever had) while boyfriend Karl is off working during the day. Bill learns more about what Ronny Lawson is really like, and his circle of suspects widens.

The most interesting thing about Bill is that he is slightly, just slightly, mentally imbalanced (he’s even spent time in a mental institution, for which we’re given a plausible explanation as Bill discloses his family history) - just enough to be relegated to this low-life job, although he doesn’t complain. Bill majored in philosophy at college and now, when he writes a report for the paper, his natural inclination is to launch into a critique of post-industrial society, explaining the decline of the nation, bringing Plato and Nietzsche into the discussion, and what have you. When these reports get to Sam the editor, it is quite amusing. You know exactly how he will react and he does. He blows up and must constantly tell Bill to stick to the facts. He pulls back in line when dressed down, but it doesn’t stop him from ranting and raving about the wrongs and abuses of capitalist society and the general decline of Western civilization.

A simply excellent portrait of a small town after the factories have closed, giving us a view of the new, ever-so-familiar landscape of generic, consumer chains and malls. This alone makes the book worth while - but we also have an engaging murder mystery along with hapless Bill’s views on the socio-economic shift. It’s a bit over-the-top in places and Bill’s philosophizing is sophomoric at times. But the former is forgivable and the latter is believable: this is exactly how the character would talk.

The Irish-born author (now living in the States) has produced a murder mystery full of suspense with that something extra - it’s loaded with wit and incidental humor (quite unlike the fast-quips of the old-time dicks) and is a profoundly disturbing and socially observant novel. It doesn’t tie up in the ordinary manner of murder mysteries, but it’s a wholly satisfying ending and will keep you awake all night getting there, at which point you don’t want to let go of the idealistic, lovably fucked-up Bill. J.A.

The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson: Alfred Knopf 1999 (U.K.); 2000 (U.S.)

A nearly thirty-year-old ballet dancer of some fame - an Englishman who’s lived in Amsterdam for 10 years - leaves his studio one morning to go get cigarettes for his girlfriend. While walking down the street, three women dressed in black cloaks and hoods approach him, telling him they admire his dancing. Before he realizes it, one of the women has stuck him in the hand with a syringe. The next thing he knows he is in a white, windowless room lying on a rubber mat with his hands and feet bound in metal rings. Here he will remain for the next 18 days during which time he is bizarrely sexually abused and tortured. The three women always wear hoods so he can never see their faces, but he comes to know their bodies very well. This comprises the first third of the novel - and you will never, ever forget it. Neither will the nameless protagonist/victim, of course. Once released - as mysteriously as he was abducted - he finds that he is unable to discuss what happened to him because it was so extraordinary, so degrading. When he finally attempts an explanation, his girlfriend doesn’t believe him. The experience has altered him in a drastic way: he no longer cares to pursue dance; his relationship is finished; his self-esteem shattered. He rests up at the beach home of his mentor, an older woman who asks no questions, and then he inherits (rather too conveniently) a sum of money which enables him to travel around the world doing nothing except living for the moment.

Thomson deftly explores how this new way of living leaves the protagonist, now a solitary figure whose past is severed and future unknown. (In the real world, such a victim would seek the help of a therapist and work at coming to terms with the trauma, but Thomson’s world is always a shimmer away from the one we know - and thank god: who wants 170 pages more in a therapist’s office?). His protagonist aimlessly wanders the globe for three years until a breakthrough of sorts occurs in Bali and sends him scurrying back to Amsterdam, obsessed with finding his three abductors. Of course, he can only identify them by their naked bodies, so . . . .his life takes quite another turn. And then another, and another. There is nothing predictable about what direction the novel will go and that is part of the fascination.

Thomson’s protagonist writes of the aftermath of the ordeal from the viewpoint of five years after the events, which lends to its coolly detached tone, as though it were being carefully recorded as mere documentation. The attention to detail is precise and impersonal: a stray red hair is viewed with microscopic attention; the whiteness of the white room leaves its clinical imprint. But at the same time the taut prose is shot through with eloquence and revelation. There is something mesmerizingly dreamlike about the entire narrative, which is the author’s trademark style. Ditto for the plot: perfectly constructed in an unconventional, ultra-modern manner that lures, teases, shocks and dazzles. It also, amidst all that, reveals the depths that abuse and degradation can reach within the human psyche. Best of all, it is a hell of a good post-modern story.

This author is hot . He won me over with The Insult (1996), about a blind man who thinks he can see - a novel I’ve been touting ever since. If you find that a lot of contemporary fiction is starting to read the same, pick up Thomson. I was recently asked who I thought was the best writer in England today. Jim Crace came to mind, probably because I was in the thrall of his latest novel; he’s certainly the writer’s writer and I do adore him. But I’ll tell you this: of the mainstream writers, Rupert Thomson is unquestionably the most exciting. J.A.

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins: Bantam 2000

I am never too sure who gets the most fun out of a Tom Robbins book – the reader reading them or the author writing them. And then there are those who would happily see him and his books wiped off the face of the planet. You see, with childlike simplicity, he asks some very pertinent questions then sticks his finger in the jelly and watches the whole thing wobble. In Invalids one of the pertinent questions is: If the Virgin Mary is hardly mentioned in the Bible, how come there is such a cult built up around her? How come it is usually her image that people, such as the peasant girls at Fatima, see and not her far more famous son? This question of course gives Robbins oodles of ways of wobbling that vast jelly called the Catholic church. A rather large wobble comes in the form of the three Portuguese girls at Fatima who, in 1917, said the Virgin Mary left them three prophecies: two were revealed within a few years, but the third was zealously guarded and only recently revealed by the Pope on his trip to Portugal last May. He said it foretold the attempt on his life in 1981. Why the nearly twenty-year wait for something so unexceptional? By some strange coincidence this non-revelation was made just ten days after Invalids was published, in which Robbins’ version of the third prophecy suggests that "the salvation of mankind would come from a source other than the church". As reported in Time magazine, Robbins says he suspects his version may have hit a little too close to home. For his jelly prodding ‘finger’, he uses a very strange protagonist called Switters. At first he seems a normal, healthy, wisecracking pervert who lusts after his under-aged step-sister. (The subject of under-aged sex crops up quite a lot, in fact.) Switters works for the CIA for the simple reason that he hates them; he has a gun, knows how to use it, but hates that as well. He is a vegetarian who will eat meat and he is a bundle of contradictions. He is also a secret lover of Broadway tunes, especially ‘Send In the Clowns’. I resisted checking out the lyrics, presuming the title said it all.

As the book progresses we get a clearer understanding of why Switters seems so …well… mad. He is the type of person who sees both sides of an argument, or sees opposites like God and Satan as the same. This doesn’t mean he is some on-the-fence middle-grounder. It means he can never seem to go with the flow and will tread on someone’s toes, but do so with such wonderful logic that the injured party feels as though it’s OK. Switters is the sort of person who can, and does, talk a bunch of fundamentalist Muslims out of their murderous intentions just by using logic.

The plot is a weird beast that builds into all sorts of interwoven coincidences. To kick-start you off: Switters is sent on an errand to sort out an agent in Peru. His grandmother, an expert hacker who likes to read Switters’ private e-mail, asks him (more like blackmails him) to take along Sailor Boy, an aging parrot, so he can die in his natural habitat. It is taking Sailor Boy to a suitable spot in the jungle that leads Switters to get stoned with a Peruvian native with a pyramid-shaped head. The secrets revealed to Switters while under the influence must be paid for: he is cursed never to set foot on earth again, thus becoming wheelchair-bound and the invalid of the title. Of course, being a Robbins plot, this logically leads to Switters somehow finding a group of Roman Catholic nuns in the Syrian desert who are trying to convince Rome to rethink its stance on birth control. As I said, it is a very weird beast indeed. While the plot leaves you worrying about Robbins’ sanity, the style leaves you in no doubt that he is a very funny writer. Another one of the pertinent points raised - by the man with the pyramid head - is that it is humour that has made the ‘white’ man so powerful and Robbins is no slouch when it comes to grins-per-page. When he does hold back on the humour Robbins can create effective and moving pieces such as when the recently ‘crippled’ Switters is living as a down-and-out, spending his days with art college students building boats from garbage and racing them down the litter-strewn gutters. With its elements of thriller, comedy, conspiracy theory and thought-provoking anarchy, Invalids makes for great summer reading. Send in the clowns. M.G.S.

Reader Comment: July 19, 2000

What about Rimbaud, then?

Your reviewer M.G.S. missed at least three curious pointing fingers in his/her review of Tom Robbins's "Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Countries". The first is the title: a line from "A Season in Hell", Arthur Rimbaud's famous farewell to literature, circa 1872.

The second is the plot device that has the hero carried about on a litter for the rest of his life: when Rimbaud's cancer of the leg became unbearable, he was carried on a litter from Harar to the Red Sea coast, an agonising three-week journey. He died less than a year later, after the leg had been amputated.

The third is this: "When he does hold back on the humour Robbins can create effective and moving pieces such as when the recently 'crippled' Switters is living as a down-and-out, spending his days with art college students building boats from garbage and racing them down the litter-strewn gutters."

Here's a stanza (the penultimate one) from "Le Bateau Ivre", "The Drunken Boat", 1871, Rimbaud's most famous poem:

Si je désire une eau d'Europe, c'est la flache
Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé
Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche
Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.

"If there is one water in Europe I want,
it is the black cold pool
where into the scented twilight
a child squatting full of sadness
launches a boat frail as a butterfly in May."

- penultimate stanza of Rimbaud's «Le Bateau Ivre», from Oliver Bernard's translation of the «Collected Poems» for Penguin, 1962, ISBN 0 14 042064 9.

John Tranter Editor, Jacket magazine:

Under the Skin by Michael Faber: Canongate Books, Scotland: 1999; Harcourt Brace, U.S. 2000

This first novel by Dutch-born Faber (Some Rain Must Fall [stories] 1998) is a unique narrative of speculative fiction that defies that category or any other. While publishers anguish over how to label it - sci-fi? thriller? literary? - we readers can just dive in and go with the flow. It’s fresh, innovative, and totally unpredictable. The protagonist is the young female Isserley, who picks up male hitchhikers - preferably those with big muscles, "a hunk on legs" - while cruising the Scottish Highlands. Isserley at first appears to be a fairly normal, young female: she has big breasts, which catch the males’ attention, but she is otherwise very short and odd-looking, with long skinny arms and big knobbly elbows and wrists (which she covers with long sleeves) and big but narrow hands like chicken feet. She also has a peculiar posture and wears what appear to be extremely thick glasses. Isserley’s job, we learn, is to pick up these wayfaring stud muffins and size them up as possible candidates for her "work." She likes her men to be unmarried and without children and preferably the sort that won’t be missed for a while. When she’s sussed that out, she either lets them go - if they don’t meet her requirements - or flips a toggle on her steering wheel, ejecting two long needles from beneath the car seat into the hitchhiker's bottom, injecting him with "icpathua," a drug which knocks him out immediately.

Early on one suspects that Ms Isserley is an alien who has been sent to this planet on a mission. The reader is swept along, as in a detective novel, hoping to pick up clues in order to understand what Isserley and her kind are all about; and, at the same time, one sees the world from Isserley’s perspective and feels what it is like to inhabit her alien body, which has been racked and mutilated to roughly conform to human likeness. Among other things, she’s had her breasts removed from her stomach and false ones attached to her chest (copied from a magazine of the "vodsels," which must have been a girlie mag because Isserley complains that she never sees female vodsels with breasts as big as hers). Interestingly, Isserley and her co-workers refer to themselves as "human" and to humans as "vodsels." There are definite similarities "under the skin" of the two species although their bodies and natural habitats are extremely different. Home base for Isserley is Albach Farm, nestled against the Scottish coastland, about which she lyricizes; here there is water and oxygen and blue skies, as though "nature wanted to nourish its inhabitants." It leaves her in awe.

In many ways the basic plot is familiar, but the author’s intent is not so much to surprise us with any startling revelations about the aliens and their doings - although shocks and surprises are in store - but rather to allow us to experience an alternative form of life from under the skin. The author does a good job of making us feel Isserley’s aches and pains - exercise is essential in the morning to try to get moving; all vodsel activity is painful - and the agony of being a "freak." The discoveries we do make about these "humans" reveal them to reflect humans as we know them - another classic sci-fi theme, but here, as with the best of sci-fi, it makes us look at ourselves anew.

No easy conclusions can be drawn about the author’s overall intent. One could say the murky argument is a weak point in the novel: what is the author trying to do? He’s holding up a mirror, yes, but that is clearly not his sole purpose. It could even be read as a tract on _______, if one wanted to, but it would give too much away to fill in that blank. Or a good alien mystery á la X-Files, although there is far more depth to the novel than that. Or .. . . I had to wonder if the author had an objective that perhaps I missed. There is intelligence and serious intent in this entertainment that leaves the reader with much to ponder, but there is an ambiguity of purpose. That niggles a bit, but no matter. Readers will develop their own interpretation and focus on what they choose from the multiple and diverse threads and motifs within the text. I’m tempted to elaborate, but don’t want to spoil the plot which any further comment would do. Enough to say that for me it is the author’s powerful imaginative capabilities - as so impressed me in his short story collection - the mesmerizing story-telling, the rich imagery delivered in tight and sure prose, the ability to take one under the skin, layered with meaning here, and especially the ability to take us into Isserley’s contorted body - that make the novel the fascinating read that it is. Highly recommended. J.A.

Born Free by Laura Hird: Rebel Inc./Canongate, Scotland 1999: reissued July 2000

Laura Hird’s first novel portrays a typical working-class Scottish family of four: mom (Angie), dad (Vic), and teenagers Jake (13) and Joni (15). The narrative is divided into chapters told from the different points of view of the four family members. Angie, a cashier, works for a bookie along with Raymond, who takes a fancy to her, fat though she is, and she dives into an extramarital relationship with him the first chance she gets. She also dives back into alcoholism after being on the wagon for some time. The two lovers meet up at the local pub where they drink themselves silly and then go screw wherever they can. Vic is a bus driver. He’s a sober, well-meaning guy, but can’t stand up to his wife or kids. Jake is only interested in himself - a typical teen perhaps although the way he blows off to his dad borders on the cruel. He is obsessed with computer games and wanks all the time when he’s not getting beat up by some older boys at school. Joni is out for herself, too, and treats her parents as bad as her brother. She’s only interested in getting shagged (it’s her goal to lose her virginity before she turns 16) and she spends as much time as Jake "X2-ing," which is her slang for masturbating or fucking. In fact mom tries to X2 herself while watching a hunk on a TV soap opera, but, as is typical, she gets interrupted. Only dad appears not to be a wanking fool and that’s because he’s on Prozac, which has left him impotent (which at this point the reader is almost thankful for) - not that he much cares for his wife anymore anyway. She snores like a train at night and he sleeps on the uncomfortable settee to escape the noise. Only once - after driving a beautiful friend of his daughter’s home - does he wake up with a hard on, but, typical of his nature, he feels it would be dirty to jerk off with his daughter’s friend in mind.

There is a lot of sad truth in the portrait of this family, a family that is going nowhere and feels the desperation of personal limitations (the song "Born Free," one of Vic’s favorites, is such an irony that the kids make fun of it and him: "It’s probably easier to be born free when you live on a massive nature reserve in the middle of Africa and have lions for pets."), but Hird focuses so heavily on the negative characteristics that it detracts the reader from empathizing. One can feel a little sympathy for Vic, but he really is too spineless to rouse much compassion. At least the lack of empathy saves the book from the sentimental narrative it could have been. And it’s not without humor, such as Angie’s remark that marriage is only good as preparation for terminal illness. But it could have done with more. The novel’s strongest point is the characterization; the voices are all spot on. The two teens are especially good, but they talk so vilely to their parents that it is hard to care much about them. In fact, the self-centeredness of mom and the kids became a bit overpowering for me. Angie’s affair is vivid and unforgettable, as is her return to the bottle. The reader can feel the delicious taste of the booze as it takes hold of her again. But she, too, is so self-centered - despicable even, the more abusive she becomes - that it overrides her character. We just don’t give a damn about her. If it were all played more for laughs, it wouldn’t matter. But the humor, though it’s there - it’s a sassy, witty and gritty novel, not bleak - isn’t enough to help us through. Hird is so good at capturing this down-and-out class, but without the empathy factor (if we’re to read it as slice of life) or all-out humor (if we’re to read it as satire), it just slightly misses the mark. In her short story collection Nail and Other Stories (1998), she skilfully combined the two, such as in the story "Routes," where the reader empathizes with the young boy - who runs away for a day from his home and his dysfunctional family - and laughs at the same time. I’m left with mixed feelings about the novel - because I do like Hird’s writing and she knows her characters inside and out - but, for me at least, it lacks the balance of the stories. Maybe next time she will have pulled it together again. In the meantime, this is still a far better novel than most contemporary offerings and despite my hesitations I recommend it for the memorable voices. J.A. [For a look at Laura Hird's "Routes," click here.]

Canteen Culture by Ike Eze-anyika: Faber and Faber 2000

For the life of me I couldn’t think of a better attention-grabber to start this review than to actually quote the blurb from the back of the book: "Hard-bitten, cynical, foul-mouthed, Bubba, Jazz, Speedy, Lionel, Saddam and Sponge know every trick in the book. They hang out in seedy London pubs, enjoy a good punch-up and generally find themselves sleeping it off in the cells. Petty villains? Low-lifes? No – just a group of police officers on one of London’s least enviable beats." Now before you jump to the conclusion that this is an attempt to cash in on Irvine Welsh’s Filth I should point out that Ike Eze-anyika was a policeman, serving in the very same Metropolitan force that he puts through the mangle in this book. He wrote it while still serving and has since resigned. God knows what his fellow officers make of it; I can imagine that females and officers of colour are more than pleased that the truth is out about their treatment by the ‘laddish’ white, male majority. Truth? Although this is meant to be fiction, the background information has to be correct and even though the main protagonists are a bunch of slime, they clearly do a particularly nasty job with a certain amount of professionalism. We would be really naïve to think the average policeman has clean, pure thoughts, doesn’t enjoy drinking, smoking a bit of dope, and would do anything to avoid hard or dangerous work. They are human after all.

Bubba, Jazz, Speedy et al are mates of different ages, backgrounds and races, pulled together purely by working the same beat. They crack the same old sexist, racist jokes, take the piss out of each other and seem to have a tight bond, but they are a team going nowhere, their future is as bleak as their wage packets. Morale is low and the only way out would be winning the lottery or the football pools. But an opportunity accidentally rears its ugly illegal head to a few of the team. To pull it off, do the others need to know? Just how strong is that bond? And then of course enters that old spoiler of all best laid plans – greed.

Canteen Culture won the 1998 SAGA prize for the best first novel by a black British or Irish writer and it is a bit of a surprise that it took two years to arrive in print. The writing style is at times somewhat amateurish but this in fact added a sense of authenticity – it reads like an autobiography, thus giving the nasty goings-on an even more believable edge. With Welsh’s Filth you are reading well-written fiction but here you’re not that sure where the fiction starts, and after a while the style just doesn’t matter. Apart from an intriguing account of the collapse of the Great British Copper, the novel also serves as a vast source of jokes and one-liners, some as old as the hills, some forced, but still worth a giggle. The language is very London at times but shouldn’t leave a non-Brit totally lost. Considering we all have close contact with the police at some point in our lives, this book is highly recommended as a way of seeing past that normally bland face and uniform; it’s not a pretty sight and will change the way you look at the police - but at least you know they are as stressed, as human and as hungover as you. With the prize under his belt and this book now on the street, it will be very interesting to see what Ike Eze-anyika does next. M.G.S

Afraid to Death by Marc Behm: No Exit Press, U.K. 2000

I missed out on Eye of the Beholder, both book and movie, so my introduction to Marc Behm is this weird little gem of a mystery novel. Well, it’s not really a mystery in the ordinary sense of the word. When he is eleven years old, Joe Egan meets a woman with purple eyes – she says she knows his father and asks directions to Mr Morgan’s. Within hours neighbour Morgan is dead. When Joe next sees her she gives him a friendly wave, but within hours his mother is also dead. Every time he sees her someone drops dead, and as Joe grows up so does his paranoia – when will it be his turn? He therefore adopts a nomadic life, living out of a suitcase, supported mainly by gambling, but always with one eye out for ‘her’. His life is from areoplane to areoplane, city to city; to a new lover’s bed or the protection of an old friend or old lover. Ol’Purple Eyes is far cleverer than a mob hit-squad and - as Death, obviously unstoppable, so the mystery here is if-when- where-and-how poor Joe is going to get it.

Light in style, easy to read and at times amusing, this book is nevertheless far creepier and heavier than one might imagine. Author Behm is in his seventies and he knows his running days are nearly over; therefore, one guesses he is putting the fear of the inevitable into those a lot younger. He does a good job. Especially recommended reading for teenagers and twentysomethings who think they are invincible. M.G.S

© 2000 The Barcelona Review
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