issue 24: May - June 2001

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Note: Due to a stupid mistake on my part these reviews were lost for over a year. But, thanks to the remarkable Wayback Machine - - they are back! MGS August 2002
This issue:

The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy
Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez
In This Block There Lives a Slag . . . by Bill Broady
The Yokota Officers Club
by Sara Bird

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.
The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy: Random House, April 200l (U.K.); Alfred A. Knoph, May 2001 (U.S.)

Short, sharp sentences. Brutal, to the bone. Jagged rhythms, abrasive alliterations. Slashes/sometimes/simplify/sentences, and letters strrrretch words. When the Klan kome kalling, ‘C’ bekomes ‘K’. Yes, it hurts, it’s not easy at first. Maybe it is just a little toooo much. It is terser that American Tabloid but more descriptive: "The lobby was swank. The carpets ran thick. Men snagged their boot heels"; or try this mob Christmas party: "The elves were sloshed. The nymphs were bombed. The Mormons were blotto. The ice-sculptures leaked. The manger scene dripped. Baby Jesus was slush. Said Savior played ashtray. His cradle held butts." Cracking, boffo stuff. The style can also build into a powerful ‘poem’. Just check out Chapter 103, Littell’s plea/prayer with its repeated refrain of "retire me": "Retire me. I’m stretched thin. My friends frighten me."

Relief from this voodoo-drum riffing comes from spoken dialogue, surveillance reports, document inserts and the fabulous phone conversations between the evil, insane J. Edgar Hoover and whoever is on the other end of the line. Coming across as some kind of English queen, Ellroy has almost Pythonesque fun with the dangerously loopy Hoover. "Our attempts to dislodge him [Martin Luther King] and subsume his prestige have consumed tens of thousands of man-hours and have garnered nil results. He has turned us into dung beetles and rare, indigenously African birds who peck through elephant shit, and I am woefully sick and tired of waiting for him to discredit himself". Humour is never far away, be it Howard ‘Dracula’ Hughes’ descent into madness or the wisecracking of the mob whenever they gather in a room, but it does do a total runner when the story shifts to Vietnam. Dark stuff.

As the second part in the planned Underworld USA Trilogy, the book picks up from the second American Tabloid left off - with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 - and takes us to the assassination of Martin Luther King, ending with brother Robert’s fatal kitchen exit in 1968. Vietnam inevitably rears its ugly head but this time certain people want to go there. As before, it is the story of minor players’ greed and power struggles that ultimately filter upwards to change history. These people are caught in such a vicious web that to describe them as pawns is too simple. A pawn is one colour and moves in one direction; these poor sods are more like balls in a pinball machine that allows ‘tilt’. Littell’s prayer continues: "Retire me. I’ll try to live idle. I might not succeed." He knows. The plot? It is easier to unravel a plate of spaghetti in the dark than even attempt to start, but by way of an introduction TBR offers the first chapter, which does a number of things: 1) gives you a sample of the tight, terse style. 2) introduces new character Wayne Tedrow Jr. 3) gives you the origin of the title. 4) gives nothing away.

Although TCST is a continuation of Tabloid, there are one or two changes. For starters, Hoover apart, there are fewer of the big, big ‘real’ people talking to characters. Howard Hughes and Jimmy Hoffa say a lot less, Robert Kennedy next to nothing. King nothing. New ‘real’ characters, Sonny Liston and Sal Mineo, blend in better with the fictional characters and I think this actually helps the believability factor, which is on a knife-edge anyway. Vietnam opens up other vistas and shows just how far the lead protagonists have deviated from the path. The murderous ‘heroes’ of the novel - paid by Uncle Sam and controlled by Don Mob - think nothing of keeping junkies as guinea pigs as they perfect the art of smack mixing. And anyway, once you’ve done one major assassination what’s another? The second time is always easier, the third a piece of piss. One or two characters, although still alive, practically disappear – the daughters for example – and Jack Ruby has done his bit and is left to die, forgotten, in prison. Those that remain are getting old. Not only getting old, they are making mistakes. "Retire me". As a natural death looms closer, life becomes important. Love becomes important. Relationships become important. Good grief, there is, after all, a soul, a heart, feelings, fear in these psychopaths. It is going to be interesting to see if in part three Ellroy actually allows one of his characters to die of old age. "Retire me. I want to watch. I want to watch passively".

Yes, you do need to read Tabloid first. If not it is a bit like trying to read the history of Punk and starting after The Sex Pistols split. Ellroy does tell the basic story again to remind people, but blink and you’ve missed a hundred pages. Also you need to give yourself the time to read it. This is not something that should be read a few pages here and a few pages there. Get yourself a weekend, bury the mobile, burn the TV. By Monday you’ll be speaking in Klipped Klauses and begging Ellroy to hurry up with part three. It’s going to be a long, looonggg frustrating wait – about two years. In the meantime, indulge yourself in this latest, lusciously perverse, underworld romp through 1960s American history. As J. Edgar would say, "a boffo book." M.G.S.

Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001 (U.S.); Faber and Faber, 2001 (U.K.). Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

Cuba. Now there is a four lettered word that conjures all sorts of misconceptions, lies, arguments, passions and god knows what else. Dangerous territory and best left to those who have experienced it from the inside, excluding the tourists who are definitely having the wool pulled over their eyes. Gutiérrez still lives there and is a little cautious about what he says (‘It’s better not to know too much. "Hold your tongue or it’ll be cut out", as my father used to say’), but he still manages to blow the lid off a few things and point a finger at the failure of the revolution. Fortunately, the minefield of Cuban politics plays a background role to drastic poverty and narrator Pedro Juan’s obsession with sex, rum and cigars.

Poverty is the key word here. It exists everywhere, so although a whole heap of blame for Cuba’s dire straits can be dumped on Castro, it is best to stand back and ignore the why and concentrate on the how. How will I eat today? How can I wash with no water? How can I survive without losing my dignity? There is a romantic notion that to be poor on an exotic island like Cuba has to be a lot easier than being poor in some frozen city in Scotland. There may be some perverse truth to this but dirt poor is dirt poor, hunger is hunger, and fifty people sharing one rooftop toilet with no water in tropical heat may start to even the balance. Pedro Juan’s answer to the last little problem is simple: crap on a newspaper and throw it onto the next roof or into the street. Poverty does that to you – pushes you to look after number one first. It is the fruitless, endless attempts to escape poverty that powers nearly all the stories. Robberies, rapes, smuggling, dealing, selling human organs as food, suicides, reckless gambling, prostitution, conning, scamming and begging . . . you name it, it's here. Eventually Pedro Juan serves two years in prison for exposing himself to a possible tourist client and that brings us to the next keyword: prick.

Pedro Juan is in love with his 8-inch penis and jealously in awe of all the huge 12-inch black ones he sees. There is hardly a page without a mention of a penis or a fuck. Poverty means one thing – boredom – and boredom leads to doing the one activity that’s loads of fun and free. So there is loads of fucking and gallons of jism flying around. Add gut rot rum and marijuana and the sex turns to an all day party. Seeing as just about everybody in Havana is skint there is a lot of sex going on, much of it in public in the parks or on the rooftops, and Pedro Juan sees nothing wrong watching while beating his bishop or asking a woman nearby to do it for him. He has sex with young girls – he is 45 and convinced his screwing days are drawing to an end – and old women in their seventies. He even admits to buggering a few people in prison. Any chance to get his prick out and he’ll do it.

So these poverty and prick stories fill out the three parts of the book. It is not a novel but a collection of very short pieces with the occasional vague link between some stories but one event does not usually lead into the following chapter nor does a chapter always serve as a stand-alone short story. Characters come and go and one or two hang around for a while; some even reappear as someone else; and in the third part, ‘Essence of Me’, the first-person narrator gets dropped for a few stories as a third-person narrator slips in to relay stories of other characters in the barrio.

Can we trust our narrator’s descriptions of underfed, underworld, over-sexed Havana? It is worth looking at ‘Me, Shitraker’ from the first part ‘Marooned in No-Man’s Land’. It is a fairly typical example of a Pedro Juan tale with, as in this case, a shocking title (others include: ‘Buried in Shit’, ‘Suicide of a Faggot’ and ‘My Ass in Danger’). His first line or two are usually eye-catchers too but the first paragraph nearly always has nothing to do with the rest of the story; so, although we start off with a storm brewing, we know the story is going to have bugger all to do with a storm.

The second paragraph has a black man publicly ‘tugging on his long black thing to make it stiff' – so the obligatory dick makes its appearance. In another paragraph there is a boy arrested for stealing a bicycle. Street crime is obviously a recurring theme, along with women talking about how good their men are in bed; hence, the progression to the next paragraph: "…he was a real stallion’. Then Pedro Juan talks about his work. First, he offers a comment about those great opening sentences of his:

I was thinking I might rework the story about Rogelio that began "No more shitting on the roof, cojones!" In Cádiz I couldn’t get it published because it had cojones in the first line (I can’t understand it – Don Quixote is a whole catalog of words like that. Well, maybe Don Quixote is a bad example. After all, Cervantes died in poverty).

He thinks about the Rogelio story and declares it a bad story because he made parts up:

Truth is best, the hard truth. You pick it up on the street, just as it is, you grab it with both hands, and if you are strong enough, you lift it up and let it fall on the blank page. And that’s all. It’s easy. No retouching.

Rogelio’s true sad story follows and Pedro Juan comments: "Not a single lie. I only change the names. That’s my profession: Shitraker." After a rather inspired paragraph about the ‘joys’ of wallowing in shit in hopes of finding an idea, he states: "I am not interested in the decorative, or the beautiful, or the sweet, or the delicious. …Only an angry, obscene, violent, offensive art can show us the other side of the world, the side we never see or try not to see so as to avoid troubling our consciences."

After that rant he is off to - no surprise here - : "…pick up some rum and cigarettes. Then I’d see what to do next."

So with this modus operandi we are going to have to believe him, his vision of Havana, his eight-inch prick and the story, ‘Crazies and Panhandlers’, where he works as a garbage man collecting street crazies and leading them, never to be see again, to white-coated men in the back of a soundproof van. The extra bribe to keep his mouth shut sums up the poverty of the island: "…little baskets full of soap and cooking oil and detergent and other things." Bet Fidel doesn’t like that one.

I loved this book and Natasha Wimmer must take some credit for a job well done. One might quibble that with the vast lexicon of synonyms for ‘prick’ in English that a little variation might have been called for, but this is a minor point. 'Whoever achieves perfect balance is too close to God to be an artist,' Pedro Juan writes, but author Pedro Juan -who shares many characteristics of the narrator (journalist in his forties, once married, has travelled, lives in the heart of a decaying Havana) - has himself managed to create a perfect balance of social documentary, storytelling, humour, pathos and smutty porn. Luckily his artistic credibility remains intact by tipping the balance in one negative instance – at 392 pages it is possibly just a wee bit too long. M.G.S.

Read 'Buried in Shit' and 'Stars and Losers' from Dirty Havana Trilogy in this issue of TBR

In This Block There Lives a Slag . . . and other Yorkshire Fables by Bill Broady: Flamingo, U.K., 2001

In this collection of 12 stories, Yorkshire native Bill Broady focuses on the local fauna - Bradford slags, workers on the dole, pub drinkers, social case workers and other motley crew variants. The typical narrator, who is very much one of the locals, frequently combines town-boy pub-speak with an educated voice, espousing a fair share of literary and cultural references and high register vocabulary ("mephitic breath"; "Rhynchokinetic beaks"; "sphagnum bog"; "strabismic" [bears]). It’s a natural voice, however; not nearly so off-putting as it may sound. It is, in fact, like most of the stories, autobiographical in tone. One can sense the author behind the similar-sounding narrators, relaying tales about his hometown and its environs.

Take "Bouncing Back": here our narrator (in the guise of an alcohol befuddled local teacher) relays the Bradford City Council’s attempt to launch a Bouncing Back Initiative with the aim "to attract the new businesses and tourism that the city so badly needs." Part of this plan is to send bouncing bears (men in bear suits) out into the town, serving as kind of mascot ambassadors to the city, which of course leaves the narrator cringing. We learn that the town likes to boast of its "four great Bradford achievers: Mandy Shires, Joe Johnson, David Hockney, ‘King’ Kenny Carter - beauty queen, snooker champion, painter, speedway rider." With the exception of Hockney, it seems the rest have failed in some way: the beauty queen, it was discovered, once posed topless; the snooker champion gave up success because he didn’t like endorsing things and playing the celebrity; and the World Speedway Champion went nuts and shot his girlfriend and then himself. The narrator embraces the snooker champ as the one, true achiever. "Bradford’s goose was cooked," he says, "by the end of the nineteenth century, when the wool industry had gone into steady and irreversible decline . . . Cashgora [a newly developed mix of cashmere and angora goat’s wool] and David Hockney weren’t going to change that."

By curious coinincidence, as I was reading this collection, a friend lent me a video of a six-part British TV series, Band of Gold, about a group of Bradford prostitutes - actually filmed in Bradford - starring the divine Cathy Tyson of Mona Lisa. It’s a soppy thriller, dissed by the narrator in another story "The Hands Reveal" (about a screwed up young girl who’s under a social worker’s care, but only during working hours); however, the series does give a realistic portrait of Bradford, with its ugly council flats and overload of unemployed workers. I had had such a clear picture in my head of what Bradford must look like from reading Broady’s book that when I began watching this series - and before I heard where it was set - I announced that it must be Bradford. Broady does an excellent job of conveying the despairing mood and setting of this bleak, out-of-the-way Yorkshire town, hitherto unknown to me; yet the stories are not without humor. It’s all a matter of how you perceive things, after all: "I was in Rawson Market, stocking up . . . Nobody else was buying anything; just standing and staring at the stalls or at one another . . . they all looked mad or in despair. I was getting dark looks for not being in rags and having the standard number and disposition of limbs - every second person seemed to be crippled."

In the title story "In This Block There Lives a Slag," the narrator is on the dole and working part-time at odd jobs to make ends meet: "I set out for a roofing job in Bradford 13 . . . . I hated driving up Thornton Road. First its mills had closed, then its light industry, then the butchers and the bakers, until all that was left was dereliction and decay. I’d liked that fine but then bright new frontages had appeared with bewilderingly kaleidoscopic window displays: Waggy’s Fancy Dress Hire, Ken’s Kendo Accessories, The Moonchild Magick Shop, Pets and Patios . . . I was glad I had the sense to drink away my own redundancy money." When a council flat wall gets painted in enormous white letters with the graffiti "In this block there lives a slag . . . she’s hurt Him and now she has to pay . . .," everyone suspects it must be the narrator because he sometimes house paints, in white. This is one of the best stories, giving us a humorous picture of a beer-guzzling, slacker Bradfordite who does indeed piss away his dole money on booze.

"Wrestling Jacob" is another fine story. Here the young narrator discovers that he can attract girls into sexual encounters by first wrestling freestyle with a Swaledale ram, which has the effect of turning on his dates. In "Tony Harrison" the title character is a junky who lives in the narrator’s council estate, always hiding from his shady creditors; the tenants know he steals from them, but can’t help liking the guy just the same. The long "The Tale of the Golden Bath-Taps" follows the young narrator, member of a wannabe rock band, as he pursues the curious female barmaid at The Bollocks, a pub of thugs and cons, "too fucking dangerous" for his mates. Christine leads him on quite a trip and the fun comes from the narrator’s running account of his pursuit. "The Kingfishers . . . The Distances" gives us a slightly older narrator (one annoyingly fixated on writing abstruse poetry) who goes to his local for a pint and finds a group of girls on an excursion with their social worker whom he tries to chat up. The narrator here was once a case worker too as was Broady himself; not surprisingly the profession pops up more than once in the book.

Some stories work better than others. The overlong "A Short Cut Through the Sun" (set in London and describing a concert by the aged and nearly petrified Sun Ra) and "Songs That Won the War" (the narrator’s account of visiting his dying father in a NHS hospice) appear to be autobiographical accounts that don’t work as well as some of the others where the town of Bradford and/or the narrator are more strongly featured. I enjoyed the book all in all, however, for its witty and often erudite narrator who’s at home in the pubs and dole lines of his native Bradford and for the portrait of Bradford itself. I used to think I wanted to visit the Lake District, but to heck with that. Who wants to trip over other tourists for picture postcard views and quaint English pubs? I want to go to Bradford. The city council should thank Broady for that. J.A.

The Yokota Officers Club by Sara Bird: Alfred A. Knopf. 2001

I try and avoid any book that has the slightest whiff of a ‘coming of age’ or ‘coming to terms with the parents’ storyline and at first sight Sara Bird’s novel seemed to fit my instant trash pile. Fortunately for all concerned I was interested in the military base aspect and read on to discover a sweet, funny, entertaining story.

It’s the mid-sixties and American Bernadette "Bernie" Root, 18, who has been away a year studying at college in the U.S., returns to her military family who are now on a new assignment on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Things have changed for all of them. Bernie for a start has become ‘hippified,’ and  is even part of an anti-Vietnam group - not the most sensible stand to take on a military base in these sensitive times. Her large family have changed too- obvious things like younger brothers getting bigger and crazier, and Kit, her already beautiful sister becoming even more beautiful - but it is the change in her once slim, bouncy mother, Moe, that is the most shocking.

Bernie remembers when she was a lot younger and their first Japanese assignment at Yakota Air base that seems to be the opposite of what is happening to them now: her father, Mace, is miserable and is no longer flying; Moe never gets out of bed and the apartment is a mess. Appearance is everything on a military base and untidy quarters could mean being sent to an even worse position (to be RIFed). On Yakota they lived off the airbase and away from prying eyes; her father was one of the top pilots sent on missions that he couldn’t talk about; her mother was pregnant with soon-to-be-born Boscoe (the children chose odd names for themselves at a later date) and there was a cute, young Japanese maid, Fumiko, whose rudimentary English young Bernie somehow understood and who also became one of Moe’s closest friends. Times were happy but they came to an abrupt end when the family was suddenly sent to an assignment in the middle of nowhere. Seemingly for no reason.

So far nothing too out of the ordinary but then a dance competition adds spice, sibling rivalry and the arrival of wise-cracking, joke-a-line, Jewish comedian Bobby Moses. He pokes fun at the Japanese speaking English ("What’s a Japanese wife’s favorite day? Erection Day" )as well as anything else that moves. Apart from Bobby’s jokes, the Japanese themselves beautifully destroying the English language leads to some good  laughs, such as this encounter in a hotel:

I dial room service and a chirpy voice answers " Mornie. Rooeen sorbee."
I ask for eggs and toast.
"Ow jew lie den? Pry, boy, pooch?"
"Oh, the eggs? Fry?"
"An sand toes?"
"Sand toes?"
"No toes. Ow bow singlish mopping we bother?"
"English muffin! Yes! An English muffin would be great."
"We bother?"
"Butter! Yes, butter."
"Coffee? Yes, coffee."
"One minny. You rooeen sorbees oder, pry ache, singlish mopping we bother, and kohee."
"That’s good."
"You're welcome."

Also open to humorous attack is any military terminology, as, for example, the 313th motto which goes under the logo of a black rooster, "Unguibus et Rostro". This Mace proclaims means "Ugly Butts and Roosters".

It is a simple but effective tale made compelling by some good writing, some touching scenes, well-drawn characters and a few funny moments. Bernie's mad, almost out-of-control family provide a diverting backdrop to events that lead to a nightmare dance tour, ending with Fumiko’s story and just what happened all those years ago, making a rather epic last hundred and fifty or so pages. It is a sort of feel-good book, but luckily doesn’t end with all problems neatly resolved. M.G.S

© 2001The Barcelona Review
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barcelona review 24           May - June  2001


James Ellroy: excerpt The Cold Six Thousand
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Stars and Losers
Terry DeHart: About Half-Crazy
Heather Fowler: If King Hammurabi
picks from back issues
James Meek: Two Stories
Alicia Erian: When Animals Attack

Profile Lunch and Tea with James Ellroy

Ellroy Quiz
Answers to last issue's Hemingway Quiz

Book Reviews Bill Broady, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, James Ellroy, Sara Bird
Regular Features Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives
(authors listed alphabetically)

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