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issue 25: July - August 2001

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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 Kosinski’s 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. There’s 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 Crusty’s 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 doesn’t 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 Alzheimer’s, 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.

Chasing 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. "I’m 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 won’t 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.

Sheerin’s 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 Seamus’s foe - who usually brings everything down to earth:

"…We don’t think you’re up to anythin’ real bad, except a bit of riotin’. And sure, that’s a bit of a laugh most of the time, isn’t it? ….Sure we don’t lose out there either, kid. You barbarians are wreckin’ the very fuckin’ place you live in, burnin’ and bombin’ the very mud huts you live in to the ground. And we get to go home to our nice wee houses up the country that all you fuckers have bought for us with the danger money we get every time ye bounce a brick off our car. Fuck…sometimes we even get months off on the sick if we get clipped. Great laugh that – money for fuck all and a holiday abroad out of it. Sure who’s losin’ out there, kid?"

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 Sheerin’s 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.

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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 Shaaban’s 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 Shaaban’s house. Should he not return, then Omar could have the house. He not only doesn’t 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 Shaaban’s 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 can’t speak English he is amazed to learn that the person is using his dead father’s name and guesses that it must be Omar. He decides to go and see the man who helped destroy his home.

By The Sea
contains some very evocative writing. Omar’s account of events reads like an old Persian story, with merchants and marriages, trade winds and shady deals. As the story - told in long monologues by the two men - slowly unfolds, one realises it is in fact an extremely convoluted plot about the rights to a house - to material wealth. And, although there is a lot of human misery and suffering, it remainsg a cold and emotionless read. This reader was quickly fed up with the ‘woe is me’ of Omar and had very little sympathy for any of the characters – and there aren’t many. Those that deserve sympathy are usually the women who seem to get done out of their rightful heritages by the conniving men-folk of their families, but the focus is not on them. The recurring theme of people changing names also seems a bit forced – there is another example of this when, Elleke, a female pen-friend of Ismail/Latif, turns out to be a male called Jan. This particular saga seems only to be there to hit one over the head with ‘name changing’; Jan could have existed and become a friend without the identity confusion – a deception that harks back to Shakespeare and well before, and is possibly to do with how we handle facts and information that we are given, a general theme of the book. The novel has its moments, but it’s a gloomy read, weighted by resignation, dense and rather annoyingly contrived. M.G.S.

© 2001The Barcelona Review
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tbr 26               September - October  2001


Des Dillon - The Blue Hen
John Aber - City of Sperm
Jim Ruland - Kessler Has No Lucky Pants
Daniel Gascón - The Conference
Steve Lattimore - Seperate States
Alden Jones - Shelter


Virginia Woolf Quiz
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