Thursday 28 July 2011

'Love doesn't care about lovers'

Black Paths 
by David B

David B's memoir Epileptic is a masterpiece of graphic work. The dark and oppressive black and white panels described in a unique way the effects of debilitating epilepsy, not only on his brother who had it, but on the rest of the family too as they struggled to raise him amidst the increasingly desperate search to find effective treatments. I would recommend it without qualification and have been looking forward to what he might produce next. Black Paths is a graphic novel with its roots in historical fact, taking its inspiration from a little known oddity in the make-up of post-World War I Europe. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to the Allied powers overseeing a new distribution of power whilst trying to breathe life into the fledgling League of Nations. One disputed area was the Adriatic port city of Fiume, contested by Italy and what would become Yugoslavia, but whilst lawlessness grew the confusion was exploited by an Italian Fascist poet, Gabrielle D'Annunzio: war hero, Dadaist, and self-styled 'Pirate King', he lead an army of loyal foot soldiers into the town to take control and set up a free Republic.

A Utopian city-state born from chaos and immersed in the surreality of Dadaism and the avant-garde was almost bound to be as much of a political success as it sounds, but it's certainly fertile ground for a graphic exploration of the fallout from war. David B is also the perfect man for the job, well-practiced at creating panels filled to the brim with detail, crowded with figures, images that seem to writhe before your eyes.

Amidst this chaos is Lauriano, a young soldier haunted by his experiences on the front line and Mina, a beautiful young cabaret singer. Lauriano like many of his friends from the front line is operating like some kind of bandit, petty crime and thieving is rife among many competing gangs, and when he and his partners reclaim some of their booty from a rival group Lauriano finds Mina hiding in the adjacent room '...part of the haul.' United with his 'electric Helen' they escape across the rooftops and we follow the young lovers as they seek safety and refuge in a city rapidly exploding into riots.

The plot is frenetic and hard to follow at times. Intercenine fighting, the bonkers political cabinet of D'Annunzio, underground writings, revolution, the ghosts of the past and a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi are all involved. As with Epileptic the most exciting moments come when art breaks through into the real world. The depiction of warfare, Lauriano's haunting memories and the section where we learn about the two days he spent alone in no-man's land are brilliantly drawn. It is also thrilling when David B takes a full page and allows his drawing to spill across it, panel borders dissolved like those of countries in conflict, and the eye can wander over the page to make sense of the chaos. Even the spectre of full-colour is something of an assault after the black and white world of Epileptic but this well-produced volume from independent publisher Self Made Hero not only does justice to that vision but augurs well for the boldness of other titles in their burgeoning Original Fiction series.


Tuesday 26 July 2011

'the dead want to be heard'

No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

Hank Williams

I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
by Steve Earle

I guess most people coming to read this novel will have done so with an awareness of Steve Earle as a musician. I'm a bit weird in that my only experience or Earle had been through watching his turns in first The Wire and then David Simon's Treme. Simon's penchant for using non-actors who had either lived a life similar to that of the characters they were playing or had in fact been the inspiration for characters within the programme found fertile ground in Earle who as a musician and former drug addict fitted in very nicely to the shuffling, bumbling roles of musician Harley in Treme and recovering addict Walon in The Wire. As a writer Earle has previously produced poetry, a play and a collection of stories called Doghouse Roses which drew yet again on his experiences as a musician and addict. In this first novel music and morphine combine once again with mortality and miracles in a period piece that engages with America's struggle with the issue of abortion whilst also providing, if it doesn't seem too absurd to say so, plenty of entertainment along the way.

It is 1963 in San Antonio, Texas. Doc Ebersole's first name may have come from his past as a doctor but with his licence to practice revoked he has become nothing more than a back-street abortionist with a morphine habit to support. His office is a corner of the local bar, his clinic a rented room in the 'shadow world' of the South Presa Strip red-light district, and along with the abortions that are his stock-in-trade there's the odd stabbing or gunshot wound to attend to. The book begins, as every morning must for a morphine addict, with Doc feeling sick and in need of a fix. Having managed to harangue his dealer Manny into giving him enough to at least get straight he adopts his position at a little table at the back of the bar and waits for custom to walk in. Luckily for him he doesn't have to wait long before a tough looking pachuco walks in with a young Mexican girl 'in trouble.' An hour later he is helping her in a way that would have been impossible in the Catholic Mexico she can only recently have left but there are a few complications.

The girl bled profusely and it didn't want to stop. It was touch and go for a while but Doc's hands were rock steady as long as he had enough dope in him, and his fingers remembered what to do even though the morphine had long shrouded his brain in perpetual mist. Without any conscious deliberation, his focus shifted, allowing him to concentrate on the crisis at hand and to forget anything and everything that haunted him, be it whispering voices or the discarded remains of the the fetus in the washbasin on the dresser.

Now, those whispering voices are important because Doc Ebersole is a haunted man. Literally. Rumours abound that he was the man to give Hank Williams the final dose of morphine that killed him and now, ten years later, he lives with that guilt in a very real way, haunted by the ghost of Williams himself, conducting conversations with him as real as with anyone else but particularly when high ('Hank knows that the higher Doc gets, the better he listens, and more than anything else, the dead want to be heard'). The voice of Williams is almost like the devil on Doc's shoulder, tempting him towards each successive hit, partly of course because that is how he can maintain some companionship in his limbo. The arrival of this Mexican girl is a threat to that however, particularly with her protracted recovery and having been abandoned by the man who knocked her up. So what we have here is something like a battle for Doc's soul. After all; Graciela, as she is named, is no ordinary girl.

One defining moment in the novel is the visit of JFK and his wife Jackie to San Antonio (just the day before his fateful motorcade in Dallas). Doc himself isn't that bothered but for the Catholic contingent a visit from the country's first Catholic President is not to be missed and for Graciela in particular there is a strong desire to see 'Yah-kee!' in the flesh. At Brooks Air Force Base the crowds gather and Graciela is sure that there is a moment where Jackie looks right at her.

And she was right. All of the other women in the crowd witnessed it and each and every one believed that it was intended for her, and all their hearts melted into one...But in fact, Jackie was smiling at Graciela and Graciela alone, and only Graciela saw the sadness in her eyes and that sadness became her own. Her grandfather had a name for such moments, the instant in which people like himself and Graciela saw what others could not. He called it la luz. The light. Something sacred passed between between them...
It is at this moment, thrusting her arms through the metal fence that separates them that Graciela scrapes and cuts her wrist. It is almost unnoticed in the excitement but when, after Doc has initially dressed it, it fails to heal quickly he keeps a special eye on this significant mark. With JFK's assassination, funeral, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, there are several days where Doc and his entourage find themselves glued to the television set and it seems to him that Graciela's wound seems to bleed afresh 'whenever...another heartbreaking monochromatic image flickered across Marge's TV.' Graciela slowly becomes something of an assistant to Doc, partly in gratitude to him for helping her but also because of her unique qualities as a healer.

Among her many gifts was an unfailing calmness under pressure, but it wasn't the cool detachment of a good scrub nurse so highly prized in a modern operating room; it was more like the warm, loving patience of the caregivers of another culture, if not another time. She performed each and every task that was asked of her flawlessly and gracefully; no matter how chaotic her surroundings became, she never stopped praying.
And people are healed, miraculously it seems; even Doc manages to kick his habit, and it isn't long before the South Presa Strip is alive with rumours of a miracle-working girl who may carry the marks of the stigmata. These rumblings soon reach the ears of the local Catholic priest, Father Killen, and Earle's plot really kicks into gear. Personally I found the character of Killen the least convincing, he's there really to provide the conflict and plot points that can bring the novel to its conclusion, but it's a small grumble in the book that is enjoyable partly because of its cast of slightly grotesque characters. The need of those living on society's margins for small, everyday miracles is well realised, as is their desire to live a better life. The interplay between Doc, Hank and Graciela is the novel's strongest aspect, particularly in the way that lines are blurred by Doc's drug use, Graciela's spirituality and the shifting realities contained within that room on the South Presa Strip. That shabby neighbourhood is given a fitting eulogy in Earle's  almost affectionate portrait, the buildings as derelict as Doc himself, 'Has-beens; shadows of their former selves waiting around for time to take its slow steady toll.' In the short video below Earle describes some of the influences on the book and the album of the same name. It may deal with junkies, whores, abortion and even the dawn of Vatican II but underlying all of this is a very personal response to mortality. That Earle manages to make it as entertaining as he does is a little miracle all on its own.


Tuesday 19 July 2011

'just a man dying'

The Coffee Story
by Peter Salmon

The coffee here, thank you for asking, is the worst fucking coffee I have ever tasted, and that's saying something, considering the shit my second wife used to make. I was a man who in his prime could have had any coffee bean and any woman in the world, but who went and fell for that pallid slip of whatsit with her flat shoes and floral prints, her grey eyes and moral certitude. Christ alone knows how she used to get rid of all the flavour.
Meet Teddy Everett, scion of the once dominant Everett family coffee dynasty, a man with a lifetime to impart as he lays dying of cancer. Actually not an entire lifetime but a very specific period of his life lived in Ethiopia at the same time as Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor, Fascist Italy renewed its Imperial interests, and the young Teddy moved with his family as Everett and Sons expanded its global operations. This is a novel all about narrative voice. The first sentence of that extract above was pasted to the side of a promotional jar of terrible instant coffee that I was sent because the publishers know that it is that voice that gives the novel its caffeine kick. What that means of course is that if you don't go for the voice then you may not have much joy; but hey, there are some people out there who just don't like coffee.

Teddy may be recalling a relatively small portion of his life but it is certainly a definitive period, one that has burdened him for the rest of his life, one packed with incident and character, one that I shall allow him to summarise in his own unique way.

...it's not true that your life flashes before your eyes: it breaks off in chunks, a wife here, a wife there, Africa bloody Africa, the sound of bullets hitting flesh, the Italians, the Americans, the Cubans, the first lump beneath the testicle, the broken coffee table, the dead child, the cars driving off with your happiness in the back, Lucy Alfarez, Lucy Alfarez, Lucy Alfarez, the bloodstained shoes wiped by a handkerchief, the handcuffs, the dossiers. The terrible burden of hidden guilt, the terrible burden of guilt revealed, but always, thank Christ, the smell of coffee...

And that tells you something of the novel's structure. This is a deathbed confessional and as such it is haphazard, random and repetitive. Teddy's memories come flying at you in those chunks he mentions with certain moments and certain people coming round again and again. Teddy may have been married twice but it is Lucy for whom the book is written and the image of her appearing from the jungle with a Zippo lighter in one hand and a coffee bean in the other for example is a recurring motif. And there is one moment in particular held back until the end, the grand reveal, the moment that changed Teddy's life for ever.

I was reminded of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman (from the same publisher) which may have a totally different narrative standpoint but is similarly unafraid of coming on strong with unsympathetic characters. The Coffee Story is populated by grotesques: a phlegm-hocking Cuban revolutionary, blind seer, brutish bodyguard, to name but a few. One figure prominent amongst them is Kebreth, the 'notebook revolutionary', his father's contact with the local Galla people but with a keen interest in the 'establishment of a proletarian government in Ethiopia that would have led to a Pan-African revolution' (the first act of which would be his successful leading of the employees of 'Everett and Sons Coffee into insurrection by assassinating my father and placing the entire operation in native hands'). Part of the appeal of the book is the casual style in which these characters are dropped into the story. Teddy isn't at all surprised that such a person should exist so why should we? This, combined with the irreverence with which he dispatches his plot points ('Did I mention I have only have one testicle?') gives the book some real zip.

I guess it's the kind of book that might be described as 'an entertainment.' The flip side of irreverence and humour (even dark humour) is that it's difficult to take the book too seriously, but I'm sure we're not meant to. Teddy's tutor, Birtwhistle, for example witnesses the same events as his pupil and tries 'to make a story of it, but he will get too tied up in the politics of the thing, in the problems of representation, of race and history, and he will never get the thing done.' Perhaps Salmon had the same experience and decided instead to entertain instead. He certainly succeeds.


Tuesday 12 July 2011

'you keep on'

Getting into the yard and seeing that the graffiti on the hull had been added to - jokes, patter, Proddy slogans - so that when the ship was near completion you'd look at her and the whole of her side would be a mess of chalk scrawlings. Comic pictures of the managers. Competitions of who could write the highest. Two-year-long conversations. And then, when she was built, it would all be painted over and there'd be no clue as to what was written underneath; except if you looked hard enough, the tiny scribbling along the waterline where the painters had wrote their nicknames.

by Ross Raisin

And the award for most misleading book cover goes to... I don't know what you're thinking looking at that cover but I saw it and thought 'shipbuilders', 'period - maybe 1940's - definitely not modern.' Well. It most definitely is modern and whilst Mick Little may once have worked in the Glasgow shipyards it is a good thirty years in the past by the time we meet him. None of this is a bad thing, it just took me a while to adjust my expectations whilst at the same time adjusting my ear to the Glasgow dialect in which the book is written. It isn't overbearing that accent, this isn't Trainspotting, just the occasional word or phrase here and there. In fact John Self wondered whether there wasn't some clash between this accented narration, linked to the main character, and the author's own 'voice' creeping through. The example given was 'The nose is badly gone the now, sore and swollen, delicately fractured with blood vessels' Does the combination of "the nose is badly gone the now" and "delicately fractured" make the sentence clash in the reader's brain? I'm not sure, it's a fine line. Mick may be a working-class Glaswegian but I'd be careful of patronising him in terms of what language he might be capable of using. It isn't a direct first-person narration anyway so maybe Raisin is trying to have his cake and eat it slightly too.

Anyway, we're getting bogged down here; the dialect helps set the scene as much as any description, as well as adding some welcome biting humour. Mick as I mentioned used to work on the famous Clydebank shipyards but as that industry slowly died his search for work took him and his family to Australia. When that venture too failed he returned to Glasgow, working as a mini-cab driver, and the modern makeover of his old stomping grounds doesn't go unremarked. Plans to convert one of the huge old cranes into a pink neon-lit revolving restaurant are swiftly dispatched.

All very well getting the full panorama but if all you're looking out on is puddled wasteland every direction - gangs of weans playing football and smoking, pigeons roosting and crapping over the rusted fabrication sheds - it isn't going to make your mozzarella parcels taste much better, is it?

I don't want to mislead you about this novel though, it is a sombre book for as we join Mick he has been felled by the recent death of his wife, Cathy, a victim of Mick's work with asbestos. This fact means that death and grief are tinged with guilt and Mick has a strained relationship with one son who virtually blames him for his mother's death. His other son, Robbie, has returned from Australia (where he remained with his young family) and his house at the outset is also filled with 'The Highlanders', Mick's in-laws, whose middle class status has already received one jab with the mozzarella parcels in the extract above (their choice of funeral finger food). But after the visitors leave Mick finds himself alone in a house that immediately feels wrong and unsettling due to the absence of the person he has shared it with. I think this  may have been my favourite part of the novel. Raisin brilliantly observes the things that mark a man's grief beginning with simple things like the confusion of finding that you've made two cups of tea or the fear of those noises that fill even an empty house. His real skill however is in charting Mick's self-eviction from the house beginning with his inability to sleep in the marital bed, preferring the couch downstairs to begin with. Mick is struggling to keep a hold of his memories of Cathy and their stash of photographs don't seem to help.

He can't get a fix on her. Even if he stares for minutes at each one...And anyway, all this, it's just confusing matters, because these photographs cover years, decades and she looks different from each one to the next. They are all of her, clearly...but when does the picture stop changing so that he might get a final hold on who she is?

He impulsively gathers all of her possessions together one day and it is almost the power of their massed bulk that sends him out to the garden shed to sleep next. Raisin makes Mick's abandonment of his home, potential work, family and the pursuit of compensation totally believable so that when he boards the coach to London with no real idea of what to do when he gets there we understand it was almost the only course of action available to him. He does have an advert for a potential job and is soon working in a grim hotel kitchen, living in the subterranean accommodation that keeps the workers functioning like drones. A hint of staff discontent and industrial action awakens something of Mick's old politicism but it also loses him his job and so begins his real slide.

Mick has always been a working man, never tempted to go 'on the broo' and claim benefits, but that stubbornness coupled with the manner in which grief has cast him adrift are a dangerous combination and it isn't long before he is on the street, quickly caught up in the routine of the other homeless, a world of hostels, soup kitchens and super lager.

He thinks for a moment how the shame of leeching like this should be making him the more desperate to get doing something, but it's not, it's the opposite - he doesn't think, doesn't care; he's into the routine.

That routine and the obviously grim nature of life amongst the dispossessed means that the second half of  the book is a little repetitious and we can't help but look ahead and wonder whether Raisin is going to give us anything to cling onto and lift ourselves up from the depression. What is commendable is the lack of judgment throughout. This could have been a rather heavy book about the descent of a unionised worker; the extract at the top of this review hints at the ever-present divisions that exist in a city like Glasgow where even the allegiance to a football team can be a political statement. But Raisin isn't interested in making judgments about welfare, charity or society. What we get instead is an insight into how easily a man might find himself utterly alone and unsupported, even at the same time as support or companionship might exist. Raisin also intermittently employs the technique of viewing Mick from the point of view of a passer by; a man at a cashpoint, someone in a park; you or I in other words, who will probably have walked past someone who looks just like this dishevelled and drunken man without thinking for a moment about what brought him there. This novel may not be about to herald a paradigm shift but it may just give any reader pause for thought, and a hefty dose of empathy and compassion which is the first step towards seeing the way our society works (or doesn't) in a different light.


Tuesday 5 July 2011

'to slip the noose of the world'

The Stranger's Child 
by Alan Hollinghurst

This was my first experience of Hollinghurst having missed the boat slightly with The Line Of Beauty and then been driven further and further away from reading it by all the coverage and plaudits it received and the TV adaptation that followed. There comes a point where you feel that there's little to be gained from actually reading a book you don't have that much interest in anyway. So I wasn't one of the legions of readers who have been eagerly awaiting his latest novel but it did mean that I approached it with a certain freshness and only the vaguest of ideas of what to expect (those hunches turned out to be about right: bit posh, bit gay, bit long).

This large novel (560 pages) follows the trajectories of two families, The Sawles and the Valances, through the twentieth century. Linking them is a late summer weekend in 1913 when Cecil Valance, an aristocratic poet, comes to visit 'Two Acres', the grand suburban home in Stanmore Hill of his Cambridge chum George Sawle. Chum maybe isn't the right word, for Cecil and Valance share what might be delicately termed a close friendship. George is in fact quite in thrall to his friend 'Cess' and their stolen moments of passion inject energy if not actual descriptions of sex into this opening section. It isn't just George for whom this will be significant weekend however. In fact it is his sister Daphne who has her head and heart turned and the course of her life altered. She is the character who will endure throughout the novel, and whose fortunes we will watch alter.

Hollinghurst's descriptions of the bustling household are wonderfully observed. Staff prepare rooms whilst discussing the 'nocturnal missions' (the preferred terminology for a wet-dream) that require them to change the bedsheets of the young gentlemen more frequently than they might like. For new boy Jonah in particular, asked to act as Cecil's valet for the weekend, the mere unpacking of a suitcase is a project fraught with the danger of not observing the right protocol. We hear Cecil's laugh downstairs 'like a dog shut in a room', there is always a sense that things are happening in every room and out in the grounds too. There is plenty of conversation too of course, particularly about the approaching hostilities, with Cecil's innate confidence helping him to strike a heroic pose in contrast to his friend's uncertainty.

Cecil seemed ready to fight at once - he said he would jump at the chance. It was touching to, and slightly comical, to see George's indecision. Anyone less inclined to fight it would be hard to imagine, but he was clearly reluctant to disappoint Cecil. 'I suppose I would, would I? - if it came to it,' he said.

But as I said before it is Daphne's encounter with Cecil that provides the novel with its 'Atonement' moment, a clumsy kiss, and the poem written by him apparently for her that gives the novel its title.

With each retelling, the story, with its kernel of scandal, made her heart race a fraction less, and its imagined impact on George, or her mother, or Olive Watkins, their fury and bewilderment, grew stronger in compensation. Daphne felt the warm flood of the story surge through her and grip her whole person; but each time the wave seemed a little weaker than the time before, and her reasonable relief at this gradual change was coloured with a tinge of indignation.
This is the beginning of the novel's major theme of artistic legacy, how the retelling, reimagining, reinterpreting of events and of those few lines, 'the minutely staggered and then the breathtaking merging of word, image and fact' can alter their very meaning over the proceeding years. Cecil's poem captures an idyllic vision of England just before The Great War destroys a generation and with the death of Cecil himself thanks to a sniper's bullet a 'very minor poet' is elevated to the status of icon. But before future generations pore over the meaning of that poem there are the personal recollections of those who knew him. George's encounter when visiting Cecil's tomb in the family chapel is quite brilliantly realised, first in highlighting the falsity of trying to render an accurate likeness, then in describing the assault of remembrance.

Cecil had been much photographed, and doubtless much described; he was someone who commanded description, which was a rareish thing, most people going on for years on end with not a word as to what they looked like. And yet all these depictions were in a sense failures, just as this resplendent effigy was...
...He had others, more magical and private, images less seen than felt, memories kept by his hands, the heat of Cecil, the hair raising beauty of his skin, of his warm waist under his shirt, and the trail of rough curls leading down from his waist. George's praying fingers spread in a tentative caress of recollection. 
That scene comes in the second section where the action has leapt forward several years. The prose may move at a stately pace but the jumps in time that come with each new section might not be to all tastes. There is something quite unsettling and even upsetting about getting interested in a setup or its characters only to turn the page and find an entirely new one. For example in part two we suddenly find Daphne married to Cecil's 'frightful shit' of a brother, Dudley (in whose talk 'candour marched so closely with satire that the uninitiated could often only stare and laugh uncertainly at his pronouncements') and in the next section find that she has had yet another disastrous marriage. But by focusing on these moments in time Hollinghurst can cover a far greater period and pursue his real interest which seems to be in literary interpretation and criticism, the creation of myth both literary and personal.

Cecil's poem may have been written in Daphne's little album but we will discover that it was really intended for her brother George and that there may have been a far more graphic version hidden in notes. An official biography comes from Sebby Stokes but the literary detective work comes from Paul Bryant who begins life as a clerk in a bank (through whose manager he is able to meet the now 69 year old Daphne) but goes on to work for the TLS (as did Hollinghurst). The second half of the novel charts his shift into life as a literary biographer whilst also covering a period where biography itself shifted - 'Was the era of hearsay about to give way to an age of documentation?' For Paul this is about discovering the truth behind the famous poem and even better shrouded secrets within both families. For the ageing Daphne, who has already written her own book about her life (reviewed more sympathetically by Paul than most other reviewers who questioned the book's veracity) he just seems to be after 'smut' quite apart from the fact that 'He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories.' The guarded exchanges between these two (and also a touching interview with Jonah, remember him?) provide the more interesting moments in a second half that delivered slightly diminishing returns for me.

I did struggle with this one, you see. Part of the reason for finishing it was to prove that I actually could after giving up on a few books recently, and part was to give an author I hadn't read previously a fair crack of the whip. Coming back to the book to copy out some quotes and reading around those a little made me realise what a fine crafter of a sentence Hollinghurst is. The writing is undeniably good, and whatever you might feel about the novel's structure there is no doubting the ambition and scope. But I did find it slow and arduous at times, no doubt heightened by only being able to read it in snatches. And as much as I could appreciate the themes that Hollingurst develops through the book I couldn't help but want to go back to the idyll at the novel's beginning, where the characters were more vivid, the dialogue punchier and all those passions a little closer to the surface. There is already plenty of talk about this being a dead cert for the Booker which would be remarkable enough given that Hollinghurst has won it previously (and for his previous novel at that) even if it weren't for the fact that some already feel that it isn't even his best book. As I just said, I haven't read any of Hollinghurst's other books but I feel that I have already read better books this year that deal with the same themes of noble entitlement, death and remembrance.


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