Declan Hughes' career as a crime novelist is rooted in longstanding passions: for the genre, for good writing in any genre, and for the absurdities of modern life. What follows is a selection of book reviews and essays on topics that range from men's magazines to the latest in crime fiction to the origins of his own plays.
by Martin Amis
So after all the pre-publication palaverthe teeth trauma, the advance angst, the marriage manque; after all the rant and rancour, the reckoning: how well does Martin Amis's mid-life meditation upon mortality, literary value and the expanding universe measure up? Second only to Money in the comic masterpiece stakes, I would say, with minor reservations, and high hopes for the future. It's reliable stuff, The Information.
If novel writing is a competitive sport, (and for Amis, there's no if about it) then Richard Tull is lying perilously low on the leader board. His stats to date: two novels, published, unreadable, Unread; one in progress, Untitled; with several Unpublisheds and Unfinisheds lazing about, queering the pitch, and a harrowing sequence of fixtures in prospect: the Unwritten, the Unattempted and finally, the Unconceived. Richard scrapes a living reviewing tedious minor biographies of second rate literary figures (Robert Southey: Gentleman Poet; The Souls's Dark Cottage: A Life Of Edmund Waller): duds on duds. Forty, alcoholic, impotent, this indigent of letters no longer fears the morning mail: why should he, when his literary agent fired him by return post, when he has received a solicitor's letter from his own solicitor? Under spouse's orders to transmute Untitled into gold or agree to give up novels for life, Richard knows that at least things can't get any worse. Then, of course, because the things you hate most have to go ahead and happen, they do. Amelior, a hideously anodyne brotherhood of person novel written by Gwynn Barry, his best and most loathed friend since university, storms the bestseller charts the world over, and Richard Tull's dread-marked soul is further corroded by jealousy and rage. He knows now what he's going to do. He's going to fuck Gwynn up.
Needless to say, Richard's attempts to destroy his 'friend' are ill-fated, as otiose as his migraine-inducing prose. Tull's destiny lies not in the pitiless stars (The Universe doesn't care about us at all these days) but on the streetshe will become 'the terrible old man in a call-box, with a suitcase, wanting something very badlycash, work, shelter, information, a cigarette.'
What's it all about then? Well, Richard helpfully sketches it out for us in his plan for an Unattempted to be called The History of Increasing Humiliation : as the status of literary protagonists has dwindled from gods to kings to men to maniacs, so has our place in the universe declined from the centre to the margins. In a godless, meaningless universe, what then has immortal value? The universal, and the novel that captures it.
'Where were the new rhythms,' Richard asks at one point, 'were there any out there yet?' One of Amis's chief strengths has always been his commitment to seeking out those new rhythms, and constructing from them a taut, highly sprung, ferociously glittering prose. At a time when every second third-rate novelist wrongly invokes the ghost of Raymond Carver to justify his own barbarically plain style, it is a relief to read a line like 'Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them,' or 'Now in the dawn, through the window and through the rain, the streets of London looked like the insides of an old plug,' or practically any other line in the book.
What I've never seen before from Martin Amis (although the Da has long been a dab hand) is warmth, deeply felt emotion, unmediated by irony, evident here in the beautifully written scenes between Richard and his seven year-old twin sons. Here is domesticity, hardly tranquil or idealised but wonderfully rendered. Coupled with the intimately autobiographical nature of the novel, there are encouraging signs of a new, mature Amis, strongly redolent of his father, but with greater natural gifts and a higher ambition. Time enough for more reliable Information yet. Exciting times.
by Don DeLillo
In the seventies, Tom Wolfe famously announced that fiction was finished: the New Journalists had stormed the citadel, and that mythical beast, the Great American Novel, was finally extinct. But myths are never quite so easy to kill off, and it came as no surprise in the eighties to discover Wolfe transformed into, what else, a wannabe Great American Novelist. Bonfire of the Vanities did not, however, manage to deter a new generation of literary ambulance chasers: whether as a symptom of the general "dumbing down" of the culture, or because of another dreary Booker Prize list, the novel's imminent demise was greatly and frequently exaggerated.
But Wolfe had made a crucial point along the way: that the novel had ceded to journalism the role of covering the society in which we live. The literary novel chose to soar above the worldly fray, paring its stylistic fingernails, unconcerned with mere story-telling, or with reflecting the culture of the times. The culture of the times was popular culture, after all, and popular culture was vulgar beyond belief. The literary novel was one of the last great refuges of Western Civilisation: High Art's bullwark against the barbaric hordes. Mozart or Miles Davis: which side are you on?
Underworld, Don DeLillo's magnificent new novel, is a prodigious achievement not least because it triumphantly squares this circle: it is an incredibly readable, supremely literary novel obsessed with popular culture, with the way we live now. It is also almost certainly the last great American novel of the century. Pundits with a grievance will have to turn their fire on some other beleagured literary form: Underworld is as good as it gets.
"Everything's connected," says sixties counter culture guru Jesse Detwiler, one of the fifty or so characters that people DeLillo's immense narrative. The primary connection in Underworld is that between a baseball and a bomb. The baseball scores the audacious home run that wins the pennant for the New York Giants in the ballgame that opens the novel. The bomb has been exploded that very same day by the Soviet Union, their first atomic test. The news is given to J. Edgar Hoover, seated between Jackie Gleeson and Frank Sinatra near the Giants' dugout. It's October 3, 1951, and the Cold War has begun.
Forty years of secret history later, Bronx boy made good Nick Shay, who now owns the baseball, is driving through the desert when, out of the haze, impossibly, comes a yellow New York taxi. It's an illusion, of course, but then the past in Underworld is never more than an illusion away. Nick is visiting Klara Sax, an ex-lover from the old neighbourhood engaged on a massive artistic project: painting hundreds of old B52s, the planes that used to carry nuclear bombs, painting them cobalt and magenta and geranium red, painting the weapons of destruction until they are transformed. "What I really want to get at is the ordinary thing, the ordinary life behind the thing", says Klara of her project, "that's at the heart and soul of what we're doing here." This is DeLillo's purpose also: exploring the secret history of the cold war, revealing the connections between the people who lived through it and the men who ordered it, the connections between Us and Them.
Nick Shay is evolved, end-of-century man incarnate: he jogs, he eats health food, he drinks in moderation. "I live a quiet life in an unassuming house in a suburb of Phoenix", he says, "like someone in the Witness Protection Programme." He amuses his friends with wickedly accurate gangster impersonations. But as we follow Nick back through the decades, we discover that he once killed a man, and to lay that secret bare, we must go all the way back to the heart and soul of the novel: a stunning 120 page sequence set in the Bronx in 1951, when the ball was hurled and the bomb was dropped and when Nick Shay did some serious research for that wickedly accurate gangster routine of his.
The Bronx back then is a thriving place, of tradesmen making a living, and children playing on the street: a community, poor but vibrant. The Bronx now is like some cyberpunk dystopia, epitomised by the Wall, a desolate building, home to the parentless children, the crazed and the starving, to "the junkies who roamed at night in dead men's Reeboks." Onto this wasteland walk Sister Grace and Sister Edgar. Grace believes in social justice, in helping to make the world a better place. Edgar believes in Sin, in Evil, in "the unshakeable laws and prohibitions." Edgar thinks vindictively of the dead coming out of the earth to lash and cudgel the living, the dead triumphant, and you make the connection back to J. Edgar Hoover, high priest of the Cold war, and the pages from Life magazine that float down on top of him as he's watching the ballgame, pages that reproduce Breughel's grotesque painting The Triumph of Death.
Connect forward then to the breathtaking vision at the end, of Sister Edgar and J. Edgar, both dead now, united in the web of cyberspace, blending with the explosions of the H-bomb home page, fusion bombs all, and as the bombs detonate across the screen, Edgar fuses with Edgar, all conflict programmed out: "Everything is connected in the end."
Paradise may be attainable in cyberspace at the stroke of a key; back on earth, conflict resolution's not quite so easy. Having described at length the calm of his marriage, and the peace of his civilised, book-lined home, Nick Shay ends with an older, wilder voice breaking through: "I tell you what I long for, the days of disarray, when I didn't give a damn or a fuck or a farthing... when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself."
All this and Lenny Bruce too. We really had no right to expect anything this great, this late.
by Thomas Harris
Last year I interviewed a number of crime writers for the TV books series Undercover. The conversations ranged widely, but sooner or later each alluded in hushed tones to "the new Thomas Harris", much as you might say "the new Thomas Pynchon", and fervid speculation as to what the book was about and why it was taking the reclusive Harris ten years to complete it ensued.
Some of their regard was obviously for Harris the bookselling phenomenon, but mostly, they were in awe of the man they considered the crime writer's crime writer, the one who, with Red Dragon, single-handedly created and defined what is now a flourishing sub-genre: the serial killer novel. Harris has been vastly influential: much of nineties TV and cinema, from Millennium to 7even, bears the mark of Hannibal Lecter. But it's an influence that extends beyond fiction: at the FBI training academy in Quantico, The Silence of the Lambs is actually a set text, taught alongside the case of Ed Gein (upon whom the novel's Buffalo Bill character is based) in order to demonstrate how incarcerated serial killers can aid in the profiling and capture of serial killers still at large. Seventy years ago, Dashiell Hammett used his Pinkerton Detective Agency experience to become a crime fiction writer; at century's close, Thomas Harris's crime fiction helps instruct the FBI.
The movie rights to Hannibal, the publishing world's Phantom Menace, sold for $10 million to Dino De Laurentis. The original plan was to reunite the Oscar winning Silence of the Lambs team: Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally. However, Universal passed, Demme walked, De Laurentis apparently doesn't believe Foster is a necessary part of the equation, and then there's the small problem of the book's plot.
Theodore Roszak's brilliant 1991 novel Flicker was about the search for an obscure film noir so disturbing it drove anyone unlucky enough to view it insane. Were Hannibal to be filmed with anything approaching fidelity, it might well have a similar effect. It is densely plotted, grotesquely violent and entirely decadent. It excuses evil on the grounds of aesthetics, the justified caprice of superior taste; like the books of Harris's Miami Beach neighbour Anne Rice, Hannibal is a celebration of nihilism, a consummate work of Fascist art.
Since her capture of Buffalo Bill, Clarice Starling's FBI career has ground to a halt, largely due to the malevolent interventions of Paul Krendler, the Justice Department official whose sexual advances she spurned. A bungled inter-agency raid in which Starling shoots dead five drug dealers, including a babe-in-arms mother (she saves the baby, of course), has the tabloids screaming DEATH ANGEL: CLARICE STARLING, THE FBI'S KILLING MACHINE. Her stock with her superiors at the Bureau plummets even further.
Meanwhile, Mason Verger, a fantastically wealthy child molester who once crucified folk with Idi Amin, wants revenge on Hannibal Lecter. Lecter drugged Verger, induced him to peel his own face off and feed it to his dogs, then broke his neck, leaving him a paralysed grotesque. Verger, whose wealth affords him all the resources of a dastardly Bond villain, plans to capture Hannibal and feed him to some Sardinian swine, specially bred for extra viciousness. This porcine banquet will be filmed, so that Lecter's agony may be preserved for Verger's viewing pleasure.
Dr. Lecter, who sent Starling a letter of commiseration after her tabloid scourging, finally shows up as the curator of a museum in Florence. Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi identifies him, but instead of having him arrested, he arranges to sell him to Verger's Sardinian kidnappers/swineherds. The job is bungled, however, and after some artfully executed slaughter, our cannibal hero is on his way back to the States.
Starling remembers that the key to her prey is his superior taste in all things. She decides the simplest way to hunt him down is to track all purchases of Chateau Petrus and Batard Montrachet, of Grade A foie gras and green oysters from the Gironde, of Bentleys and supercharged Jaguars.
Sure enough, the "imperially slim" Dr. Hannibal Lecter is shopping at Tiffany and Christofle, buying Riedel wineglasses and "an exquisite copper saute pan." Soon he is at his isolated new home on the Chesapeake shore, sipping fine wine by candlelight, playing Henry VIII airs on the harpsichord.
It has been said that Harris never watched Anthony Hopkins impersonate Lecter, as he wished to preserve his own vision of the character. That character is brought more intensely into focus here than ever before: with his gourmand tastes and his appreciation of high art, his elegant grace and his fastidious sense of style, Dr. Hannibal Lecter emerges as a cross between Hermann Goering and Fred Astaire. Nowhere is there any indication that Harris finds this problematic, not to say risible; on the contrary, we are clearly intended to be impressed and seduced by Lecter's sublime magnificence, just as Clarice comes to be.
We remember that Clarice, following a meeting with the heavy, pale, sullen nurse Inelle Corey, reflected thus: "She knew she was weary of something. Maybe it was tackiness, worse than tackiness, stylelessness maybe. An indifference to things that please the eye. Maybe she was hungry for some style." We recall the frequent, apalled references throughout the novel to bodily and sartorial imperfections: "the beer bellies, the flab and pasty white of the indoor gunmen", the thick woman police officer with her big behind and her gaping jacket vents, the redneck hunter with his tattoos and reversed baseball cap. And we begin to see that Clarice has the outward moves of an action figure but is an almost entirely passive character, her inner life a set of cartoon-like psychoanalytical riffs, carefully constructed so that Lecter (and Harris) can manipulate her to perfection. Her fate is to be drawn inexorably towards the uebermensch. Forget politics, justice, ethics: salvation lies in immense wealth, exquisite taste and the understanding that the superior being can do whatever he likes. In Woody Haut's Neon Noir, a valuable study of contemporary American crime fiction, Haut speculates presciently about Harris's future work: "The inescapable conclusion is that Clarice and Lecter will one day settle down and find some kind of perverse happiness together." A nightmare reprise of the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath seals the nihilistic deal.
This novel is already being hailed as a major work of literature, worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Harris clearly agrees, peppering the text with orotund editorials about life, death and God, like a cut-price Tolstoy. Hannibal is not literature. It is a highly entertaining, extraordinarily pretentious comic book, sometimes superbly, but often sloppily written. It ranks for quality not with the crime fiction greats, not with Hammett or Macdonald or Mosley, but alongside the work of Ian Fleming and Anne Rice: adolescent, melodramatic fantasy. For content, file next to Ayn Rand, another proud American fascist. Better still, heave it in the trash and buy Angels Flight by Michael Connelly, incomparably the best crime novel I've read this year, with an apocalyptic ending among the LA riots that is genuinely terrifying (because completely credible). Angels Flight more than honours the tradition initiated by Hammett all those years ago; Hannibal is a travesty of it.
RAT PACK CONFIDENTIAL
by Shawn Levy
If you were on the inside, you were a Charlie, and your pallies were Charlies too. Squares were Harveys and bunters, death was the Big Casino and Clyde meant whatever you needed it to mean: "How's your Clyde?"; "Pass the Clyde"; "Let's lose Clyde." Everyone had a nickname except Joey Bishop, which somehow made sense, as nobody could work out what Joey was doing there in the first place. Dean was Dag, short for Dago; Sammy was Smokey, because he smoked a lot; Peter was married to Pat Kennedy, so naturally he became the Brother-In-Lawford; and Frank?
Frank was the Leader. Even the Harveys knew that. It was Frank's world, and they just lived in it.
It hadn't always been Frank's world, of course. In the early fifties, Humphrey Bogart ran a mob of hard-drinking Hollywood refusniks out of his Holmby Hills base: David Niven, Swifty Lazar, Mike Romanoff, Judy Garland, Angie Dickinson and Bogart's neighbour, Frank Sinatra. When Lauren Bacall caught up with them in mid-binge one night in Vegas, the revelers' splendor had faded more than somewhat. "You look like a goddamn rat pack," she muttered, and a phrase was minted. To be a rat, you had to drink hard and laugh loud and stay up late and not give a damn what anybody thought. This was how Bogart lived, and Sinatra idolised him for it, pretender to his crown. When Bogart died, Frank acceded to the throne.
At first, Frank styled his new court the Clan, until he remembered that one of his Charlies was black, and two were Jews. Then he called it the Summit. But everyone knew it as the Rat Pack, and everyone, whether entranced or repelled, looked on agog at what Shawn Levy calls "the Last Great Showbiz Party."
They assembled at their place in the sun, the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas in January 1960: Sinatra, Martin, Davis Jr., Lawford and Bishop. By day they shot Ocean's Eleven, a dim caper comedy about a bunch of guys planning a casino heist; by night they worked the heist in reverse: a few songs about love and marriage, a few jokes about booze and dames, a few exhortations to sally forth and play the tables. Jack Kennedy dropped by, and mobster Sam Giancana, and any number of starstruck broads and hoods, high-rollers and Harveys. "It was sauce and vinegar and eau-de-cologne and sour mash whiskey and gin and smoke and silk and neon and skinny lapels and tail fins and rockets to the sky. It was the acme of the American Century and a venal, rancid, ugly sham."
Much in Levy's exhilarating work is familiar. The many contradictions in Sinatra's life, not least that between his outstanding musical artistry and his pathetic desire to command the respect of hoodlum savages like Sam Giancana, have been well documented, while the account of Dean Martin leans heavily on Dino, Nick Tosches' definitive biography.
Membership of the Rat Pack didn't make Sammy Davis Jnr's life any easier. At the Democratic National Convention to announce J.F.K.'s nomination, the subhumans from Alabama and Mississippi booed when Davis was introduced; he postponed his marriage to blonde May Britt because it would embarrass best man Sinatra, who was campaigning flat out for Kennedy; finally, his invite to the inaugural gala was rescinded: the South still needed wooing. The act barely registers in the Kennedy catalogue of squalor, but Davis, who thought he'd finally arrived, was devasted.
As for the other two, Peter Lawford was a third-rate actor and a first-rate pimp; Joey Bishop was a passable comic who made Frank laugh. If they'd bothered to give Joey a nickname, "Lucky" would have fit.
For all the sham and squalor, the glamour still casts a spell. Shawn Levy argues persuasively that the Rat Pack was "the last redoubt of old-time showbiz against the hordes of teen culture," and that the reason we're so nostalgic for that time is because it was the last moment of cultural unanimity our society knew. And when the sixties had finally swept it away, nobody would agree about anything ever again.
A MAN IN FULL
by Tom Wolfe
Eleven years is an absurdly long time, and Ambush At Fort Bragg didn't even count as a stop-gap, so let's cut to the chase:
A Man in Full is not the era-encapsulating, stylistically effervescent, laugh-out-loud funny literary sleigh ride Bonfire of the Vanities was; indeed, by Wolfe's standards, it's almost sedate, altogether a cooler, more carefully measured performance. It sometimes betrays its author's increasing age: the twentysomething hero, Conrad Hensley, is sympathetic without being entirely credible, few of the younger characters convince and the pastiche rap lyrics are embarrassingly lame. The phrase-minting too has lost its lustre: there's nothing here to compare with Radical Chic, Social X-Ray or Masters of the Universe, and Wolfe seems to imagine that Money Talks, Bullshit Walks and Chasing the Dragon are expressions so arcane as to be in need of explication. At sixty-eight, Tom Wolfe's feet are no longer quite as deftly positioned on the Zeitgeist Surfboard as they once were. But he has nonetheless produced another magisterially stylish, utterly absorbing saga, crammed with more incisive information about The Way We Live Now, (the novelist's only brief, in Wolfe's view) than eleven years of Booker Prize shortlists have provided. Worth the wait? Put it this way: since at 742 pages it's too heavy to carry about, I hit on the cunning ploy of not leaving the house till I'd finished it.
A Man in Full takes place in racially fraught, politically rank Atlanta, Georgia, heart of the New South and home to Cap'm Charlie Croker, billionaire ex-football star, plantation owner and the only real estate entrepreneur in Atlanta with the brass neck to name a development after himself. Mall, cineplex, hotel-and-apartment complex, immense parking lot, forty storey tower topped with a restaurant-cum-planetarium housed in a massive dome: Croker Concourse has everything except tenants. For while Cap'm Charlie correctly foresaw the vogue for the 'edge city'a vast commercial cluster, served by highways, situated at the outer edge of the metropolishe built his edge city way past the edge of where anyone was actually willing to go. In two or three years, somebody will make a fortune out of Croker's Folly, but in the meantime, PlannersBanc want their $160 billion back, and if that means Charlie selling his Gulfstream Five private jet and Turpmtine, his 29,000 acre plantation, well, everyone has to tighten his belt.
The belt Charlie Croker decides he can best afford to tighten belongs to the workforce at Croker Global Foods, including Conrad Hensley, who at twenty-three is trapped with a wife and two kids in a dead-end job loading food cartons in the Croker 'Suicidal Freezer Unit.' In Oakland. Conrad deserves better, but his belief in Doing the Right Thing has brought the Wrong Luck: Loser's Luck. Having lost his job, his clumsy attempts to get another see him lose first his car, then all his money, and finally his liberty. Conrad the Loss Leader is sent to Alameda County Jail, Santa Rita, where he is introduced to the writings of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, and where he fights a crucial battle with Rotto, leader of the Okie thugs, a battle for his soul, not to mention his anal integrity.
Meanwhile, fastidious, dandified black lawyer Roger Too White (because his name is Roger White II, and because... oh go on, guess) is hired to represent Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon, Georgia Tech's young black star running back, who has been unofficially accused of raping the daughter of one of Cap'm Charlie's best, richest and whitest friends, Inman Armholster. Roger enlists the help of his old college fraternity brother, Mayor Wes Jordan, to finesse a situation that has the potential to blow the city's delicate racial balance apart. The mayor's office could persuade PlannersBanc to take the financial heat off Charlie Croker for keepsprovided of course he speak out on the charmless Fareek's behalf ...
Of the many good things here, the tortuous realpolitik involved in maintaining order in an Atlanta where the blacks have most of the city and the whites have most of the wealth is particularly well delineated. The Saddlebags setpiece, where the young Turks from Plannersbanc literally sweat Cap'm Charlie so the underarm stains on his shirt meet at his sternum to resemble a pair of saddlebags on a horse, is vintage Wolfe. And the description of stallion and mare mating in the chapter entitled 'The Breeding Barn' more than vindicates Wolfe's belief in the novelist as reporter.
But in its major theme, the novel stumbles. Wolfe's Big QuestionWhat does being A Man in Full entail?means he must bring together each of his Men in Part, Conrad Hensley and Charlie Croker, so they can learn from each other. But Conrad is such an impossibly idealised character, an implausible cut-out of what a man should be that his quoting from Epictetus becomes too transparently a series of moral homilies from old Pastor Wolfe, as unlikely a source of spiritual guidance as you could envisage. The knock-on effect of this is to render Croker's ultimate fate simply incredible.
Yet that said, the sheer dynamism and verve of Wolfe's masterly story-telling sweep you relentlessly along, and you somehow feel it churlish to demur, even at the tale's most unlikely moments.
In the past, Wolfe has compared himself to Balzac and to Dickens, but the writer he's always reminded me of is Henry Fielding: both write social realism in an ornate, buoyant, souped-up style; both convey not just the manners of the age but its spirit; both have a comic sensibility marked by generosity and, curiously, for all the biting satire, by kindness. Their characters, and by extension their books, say Yes to Life, which is why it's hard not to feel exhilarated by them. A Man In Full is not without its faults, but when I finished it, I felt like cheering, and how often can you say that of anything, let alone a novel?
by Robert Harris
Hitler was bad, but Stalin was worse; this much we know. But while Germany successfully de-Nazified, no such process has ever really taken place in Russia. Stalin's grave is a shrine, his speeches are sold on the Moscow streets, he is routinely praised by leading Russian politicians as a 'great patriot' and his old party continues to win upwards of forty per cent of the vote. Crisis is the climate in contemporary Russia, where the country is still owned, as it always has been, by whoever has the biggest fists, and where many yearn for the brutal simplicities of their much-mourned Papa. The fear that Russia is as ripe for dictatorship today as Germany was during the Weimar Republic years informs every line of Robert Harris's superb new novel, Archangel, which operates at once as a spine-chilling page turner and (to borrow a phrase from the recent BBC documentary series, The Nazis) as a Warning From History.
Raffish, raddled historian Fluke Kelso (think Alan Bates in a Simon Gray play) is in Moscow at a conference to mark the opening of the Soviet Archives. He is visited in his hotel room by Papu Rapava, the former NKVD bodyguard of secret police chief Lavrenty Beria. Rapava tells Kelso that on the night Stalin died, he helped Beria to steal Stalin's secret papers, including a notebook. Enthralled by the possibility that Stalin, who 'made it his business to murder almost everyone who might have been in a position to tell us what he was like,' left behind some revelatory final testament, Kelso sets about tracking down the documents. On his trail are Stalin worshipping ex-KGB strongman, Vladimir Mamantov, leader of the far right Aurora group (slogan: Violence Is Inevitable), and the SVR, this year's incarnation of the Secret Police. Hooking up with unscrupulous American TV reporter R.J. O'Brian, Kelso's quest finally takes him to the desolate port of Archangel, where he finds... well, if I told you what he finds, you'd have to kill me; no jury in the world would convict. Harris's two previous novels, Fatherland and Enigma, were sophisticated pieces of historical imagining. What each lacked, however, was any real sense of suspense, and this is where Archangel comes into its own: the climax when it comes is both genuinely unexpected and terrifyingly credible.
Harris wears his research lightly: there's no Tom Clancy techno-porn here, yet both past and present-day Russia are vividly rendered. He also writes uncommonly well: 'Kelso... rose, by force of will, through all the stages of human evolutionfrom the slime of the floor, to his hands and knees, to a kind of shuffling, simian crouch' is as good an evocation of a hangover as I've read, while the image of Stalin forcing his Politboro cohorts to dance, late at night to a record on which howling dogs replaced the sound of human voices hauntingly captures the crazed barbarism of the Soviet era.
Archangel joins Douglas Kennedy's The Job on a very short list for thriller of the year.
ALL TOO HUMAN
by George Stephanopoulos
A Political Education
One of the most influential exchanges in modern American politics occurredwhere else?on television. A live debate during the 1988 presidential race saw George Bush charge Democrat hopeful Michael Dukakis with the heinous crime of being a Liberal. Instead of turning Bush's asinine accusation into a campaign asset; instead of saying: "If being a Liberal means I believe it's government's job to help the poor, the old and the sick, to improve our public schools, rebuild our inner cities and ease the burdens on our working families, then yes, I'm a Liberal, and proud of it"; instead of standing his ground, the abject Dukakis denied himself.
And the cock's been crowing ever since. Like hostages who have fallen in love with their captors, the "New" Democrats have been afflicted with political Stockholm Syndrome. They enact the type of right-wing republican legislation to which they have traditionally been opposed, on the spurious grounds that it's better for them merely to retain power than actually to use that power to effect principled change. ("Principle", like "liberal", is one of those words we apparently can no longer afford in this non-ideological common sense age of strict fiscal rectitude.)
There is much talk of principle in George Stephanopoulos's memoir of his five years as Bill Clinton's spin doctor in chief, which, although subtitled A Political Education, reads more like a bizarre hybrid of therapeutic odyssey and spiritual apologia. The son and grandson of Greek Orthodox priests, George sets great store by his ethical principles; his fierce personal ambition, however, draws him not to the politicians he most admires, Bob Kerrey or the ever-vacillating "Hamlet on the Hudson", Mario Cuomo, but to the all too human Bill Clinton. Stephanopoulos acknowledges at the outset that Clinton is more conservative than he, but that's not important: "I was moved by more than what he stood for or how much he knew. It was how I felt around him: uniquely known and needed, as if my contribution might make all the difference."
The first major test of George's feel-good faith comes on the campaign trail, when tapes of Clinton with Gennifer Flowers prove the candidate has been lying not just to the public, but to his staff. Far from re-creating Bobby Kennedy's "black and blue" crusade, as Stephanopoulos hopes Clinton's team can do, this bimbo eruption has them resembling nothing so much as Gary Hart's campaign. George anxiously invokes theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith, but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure." Bill needs George, and being needed by Bill makes George feel good, so George bites his lip and defends Bill no matter what. And Bill is elected on an election manifesto reducible to nineteen syllables, a campaign Haiku:
Change vs. More of the Same
The Economy, Stupid
Don't Forget Health Care
The White House is theirs. Now what do they do? They make as many enemies as they can, as fast as they can.
Ah yes, those early days of the Clinton Administration, when George and Dee Dee and the other Young Turks gambolled about the Oval Office, alienating the Beltway set and aggravating the press: at the time it was like tuning in to some new Aaron Spelling TV show: Pennsylvania Avenue 90210. The accent was on Youth. Youth and supernatural incompetence. Stephanopoulos is candid about his own inexperience: the fiasco of his first press conference, his advice to the President not to take responsibility for the FBI raid in Waco, Texas, the summary dismissal of the White House travel office staff. Add in the famous $200 haircut on Air Force One, the cack-handed compromise over gays in the military and successive nominees for attorney general being bowled over like skittles, and you have some of the worst media coverage any administration had received in years. It wasn't all down to the new regime: the American press has a ludicrous sense of its own importance, and felt it wasn't being accorded the regard it merited; and many of the reporters were envious contemporaries of Clinton, and simply couldn't stomach the fact of his presidency. But however you analyse it, Stephanopoulos's job was to put a positive spin on events: the mystery is not that he was relieved of the press briefings to which he was so ill-suited after a mere six months, it's that he wasn't fired for ineptitude after six weeks.
That said, the crucial decisions that undermined the first Clinton administration all came from Hillary: she alienated the press on day one by denying them walk-in access to the press secretary's office (it's debatable whether the White House veterans ever forgave her for this); she insisted on stonewalling over the Whitewater charges, thus ensuring that they would run and run; and most damagingly, she took full charge of the Health Care reform strategy but lacked the political flexibility to finesse it through Congress.
Stephanopoulos clings on through the battles with Newt Gingrich, weathers a period of disfavour when the odious Dick Morris is in the ascendant, and wins a battle over affirmative action, but his star is waning: soon, he's on anti-depressants, and dreaming of escape. The 1996 campaign is based on the slogan: "The era of big government is over." The Democrats finally admit to being the prisoners of conservative rhetoric: it's "the death of liberalism at its own hands."
George is not too numb to notice, but he's insufficiently self-aware to understand that he is as culpable as his hero. George chose Clinton over Kerrey or Cuomo because Clinton was a winner, and he made George a winner too. And if that meant turning a blind eye, or telling a white lie, or worse, well, it was all in a good cause. Until the only cause left was winning, and the cock crowed ever louder.
When the Lewinsky story breaks, Stephanopoulos turns on his old boss with a self-righteous vehemence that shocks many of his erstwhile colleagues. But in the context of his memoir, (which, let it be said, is drably written, self-referential to the point of solipsism and almost entirely devoid of wit, humour or the irony that is the only sane response to the rococo Clinton carnival), his disgust is perfectly understandable: it is self-disgust, a projection of his own deep-seated unease with what he had become. If only this good president had been a better man, George whines.
Reading All Too Human, I thought often of the old joke: man asks woman if she'd sleep with him for a million dollars; woman says sure; mans asks if she'll do it for fifty; woman, outraged, asks man what he thinks she is; man says they've already established what she is, they're just haggling over a price. Now George is an academic and a media commentator, he considers himself entitled to pull moral rank on those he once served. Soon, his old workmates will say of him what people used say of Doris Day: that they knew George Stephanopoulos before he was a virgin.
by John Connolly
Dark Hollow is John Connolly's second novel, hard on the heels of the phenomenally successful Every Dead Thing, and it hits the ground running in a prologue that is an absolute tour-de-force.
Emily Watts steals a security guard's gun, escapes from St Martha's Home for the Elderly, warns in apocalyptic terms of the coming of Caleb Kyle, then shoots herself. Meanwhile, an FBI stakeout ends with eight men deadone Fed, four Cambodians and three members of the Boston Mafiaand a suitcase of the Mob's money stolen.
Charlie "Bird" Parker has reclaimed the house of his maternal grandfather in Maine, and is setting himself up as a private detective. As a favour to Rita Ferris, Parker visits her ex-husband, Billy Purdue, to try and extract the maintainance payments she's owed. Purdue attacks Parker with a knife, but finally coughs up some cash. The next day, Rita Ferris and her small son Donald are found murdered, and Parker plunges into an investigation that will take him back thirty years, back to the day his grandfather came upon the great oak by the Little Wilson Stream, the oak from whose branches five dead girls were hanging. Searching first for Billy Purdue, then for Caleb Kyle, pursued by the Boston Mob and by a gruesome pair of sadists called Abel and Stritch, assisted once again by Louis and Angel, Parker does battle with demons dead and alive in this blood-soaked slab of Maine Gothic. The book is too long, and as a narrator, Parker can be a bit of a blabbermouth, but Dark Hollow is superior stuff, an exceptionally good crime novel.
by John Updike
Let's face it, gentle reader", John Updike writes in the preface to More Matter, his fifth (if you don't count the writings on golf, and let's not) collection of assorted prose, "I set out to be a magazine writer; the magazine rack at the corner drugstore beguiled me with its tough gloss." Updike began his career as a staff writer at the New Yorker (for which several of the pieces in More Matter were written) in 1955; it has been a life-long love affair: "Appearing under the same Rea Irvin-designed title-type and department logos as White and Thurber and Cheever and those magical cartoons was for me a dream come true. It still is."
More Matter is divided into four sections: Large Matters, including essays on politics, religion, New York City and, I very much regret to say, golf; Matter Under Review, on books and bookfolk; Visible Matter, on art, photography and movies; and Personal Matters, a diverse mixture of autobiographical pieces, acceptance speeches and occasional essays on pretty much anything requested by any editor anywhere. (To Brazilians, he explains the cold.) Indeed, you have to go back to Anthony Burgess to find a writer the match of Updike for sheer output: the 900 pages that comprise More Matter emerged in an eight year period that also saw him publish five novels, a short story collection and a children's book. Writer's block does not appear in the index.
I suppose you could read a book like this from start to finish, but there would be something faintly sociopathic about you if you did. Better to take Mr. Updike at his word, and treat More Matter as a bumper edition of a favourite magazine, to be dipped into and plundered, magpie fashion.
"Inhabiting a male body is like having a bank account; as long as it's healthy, you don't think about it." It's a snappy opener, but not terribly credible from the man Martin Amis described as "in his perceptions, almost dementedly sensual." The essay form acts as a brake on the sometimes glutinous excesses of Updike's marvellous style, but sensuality is here in abundance. Get Thee Behind Me, Suntan is a lush remembrance of sunbathing days past, when "it was a carnival under the dome of heaven, every fair day." Tagging along in his wife's social orbit, he surveys the tanning housewives arrayed along the beach, with their "baked shoulders, freckled clavicles, creamy midriffs, sand-encrusted rumps and thighs." "Salt sparkled on our skin," he recalls; "Drying hair took on a mussed, wild-woman look that was very attractive." But the women were not sun worshipping for the benefit of men; in rejecting their mothers' perms and pampered, housebound look, they were striking out towards an independence that evolved "beyond heterosexual attachment entirely, toward an Amazonian paradise of self-sufficient women." These Sixties matrons, Updike decides, "were donning bronze armour."
Tall, slim, athletic, a suburban, golf-playing church-goer; Updike has never joined the boho dance, and nowhere has this been more evident than in his Protestantism. In a speech delivered at Indiana/Purdue University, he contrasts the way in which orthodox religion plays no part, not even as an absence, in contemporary literature with the strong presence of Christian belief as an animating current during the nineteen fifties, represented most eminently by Eliot, Auden, Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark. "If Christianity was not precisely "in," the Middle Ages certainly were, along with concepts like "anxiety," "numinousness," and "the leap of faith."" The Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard had influenced Sartre and Heidegger, and Thomists such as Jacques Maritain were positively chic.
Now, all is abysmally human: "If there at all, the church is there, as it is on The Simpsons, for laughs, not entirely unwistful." Yet all is not lost: like religion, art cannot be judged by dollar profits or the vagaries of contemporary opinion. "There is a shadowy cosmic presumption that the universe... composes a narrative and contains a poem, which our own poems and stories echo." According to Updike, literature at its deepest and most simple is motivated by the impulse of praise, or its inverse, lament and execration, and in a wonderful flourish, he concludes: "The writer's most important asset is not wisdom or skill but an irrational, often joyous sense of importance attaching to what little he knows; and this is a religious sensation."
Lana Turner provided sensations of quite another kind, and the affectionate, chivalrous Legendary Lana is Updike at his democratic best. "Critics didn't like her, but for a considerable time two groups did: the people who made movies and the people who went to them." Why was this so? Because of Lana's sex-stung, pouting lips and pencilled eyebrows, that cloudy, heated Lana presence; because her vulnerable heroines, torn between passive love and active ambition, spoke to the suggestible, repressed, generous-hearted adults who flocked to see her on the screen and to inhale the narcotic scent of her sensational, disastrous private life; because finally, Turner's life "showed her idolizers that even a beauty cannot depend on a man: a girl is on her own."
And for those of you whose millennial list-lust has not yet been sated, here is Updike's Millennium Top Ten: Ulysses; Remembrance of Things Past; The Possessed; War and Peace; Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Candide; ShakespeareComplete Works; Don Quixote; The Divine Comedy; and Summa Theologica.
by Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes is a witty, incisive journalist: his Letter From London was one of the outstanding features of Tina Brown's New Yorker, while a collection of his brilliant Observer television criticism is long overdue. And it's not as if he doesn't know how to tell a story: his detective novels featuring bisexual private eye Duffy are first-rate, well-plotted comedy thrillers. But they were written under the pseudynom Dan Kavanagh and, despite being his most successfully realised books, they are routinely omitted from his list of publications: genre fiction, you see, not the real Barnes deal.
Writing about genre in What Became Of Jane Austen, Kingsley Amis suggested that most contemporary novels were like spy novels with no spies, or crime novels with no crime. Over the course of the last twenty years Julian Barnes has toiled hard to perfect his own genre: the novel of ideas with no characters, of philosophy with no plot. England, England is emphatically the real Barnes deal: like the rest of his work, it is chockful of ideas, jests, speculations, pastiches and Fine Writing, and it lacks entirely the consolations fiction should provide: characterisation, story-telling, drama and plot.
Actually, there is a plot of sorts (by Tom Sharpe out of Gore Vidal): a Goldsmith/Maxwell amalgam called Sir Jack Pitman devises a plan to transplant all of England's great traditions and tourist treasuresthe Royal Family, Robin Hood, Big Ben, Cricket, The Timesto the Isle Of Wight, which will henceforth be a massive theme park called England, England.
Meanwhile, Martha Cochrane, who as a girl used do a Counties of England jigsaw on her kitchen floor until Dad made off, taking Nottinghamshire with him; icy, silent Martha, Sir Jack's Appointed Cynic, discovers her employer's unorthox sexual preferences (Nappy, Titty, Pooyou don't want to go there, believe me), and blackmails him into relinquishing control of England, England and handing her the reins. All goes prosperously until the missing piece of the jigsaw turns up: Robin Hood and his Merrie Band go native and attack the 'SAS' with real arrows; Martha's Nottinghamshire nemesis restores Sir Jack to power, and England, England becomes the 'real' England.
Of course, Barnes isn't actually writing a story, he's presenting a series of theses: we can't remember our first memory, so we make one up; as with individuals, so with nations; therefore tradition, deriving as it does from a history which is to some extent fabricated, is infinitely malleable; and so on. These ideas are not dramatised within the narrative; they are merely anounced at regular intervals. It's like having Dr. Jonathan Miller pop up every ten minutes or so to make an interesting observation. Except the observations aren't that interesting any more: Theme Park England is such a hackneyed metaphor that the satire lacks all bite, while an investigation into the nature of national identity is an absurdly 19th century enterprise to be undertaking, especially on the eve of the 21st.
KNEELING AT THE ALTAR
by Jim Lusby
The most irritating trend in recent crime fiction has undoubtedly been the spate of detectives with "interesting" characteristics and hobbies. Feminist intellectual cat-owners with impossible boyfriends, twelve-step programme gourmet chefs with a poetry-writing habit; the overall effect is redolent of some cheesy nineteen fifties advertising slogan: Better Living Through Detective Fiction. Instead of the tale moving with inexorable, hallucinatory logic from mystery to revelation, the narrative is regularly interrupted for bulletins about how fascinating the detective's personality is. But we don't care about the detective's personality, we care about the story; the detective is only important to us in that he stands for the narrator: without his efforts, we won't get at the truth. What he does is who he is; the rest is ingratiation and editorialising.
Detective Inspector Carl McCadden, who makes his third appearance in Jim Lusby's pacy, densely plotted new police procedural, Kneeling At The Altar, is a satisfyingly opaque character: a divorce, a leather jacket, a loft-style apartment and a nice line in irony are all we need to know. There is perhaps a little too much information about his reading habitsPhilip Larkin, Catullus and George Orwell's Collected Essays, apparentlybut otherwise, he is refreshingly free of the lifestyle accessories with which too many of his fictional counterparts are burdened.
When McCadden rescues dapper John Ryle from a vigilante gang led by drunken ex-footballer Joey Whittle, he becomes involved in an investigation that will stretch back ten years and embrace the troubled legacy bequeathed by the Christian Brothers to several generations of Irish men.
Joey Whittle suspects Ryle of taking pornographic pictures of his son Jason, and possibly of sexually assaulting him. On the night in question, Jason Whittle had been hanging out in the woods near the local authority estate with his friends Luke Brady and Nicholas Hayden. The theft of a cane from a blind criminal, the brutal beating of Nicholas Hayden and the brief sighting of a Christian Brother near the woods: this seemingly trivial set of events is all that McCadden has to work with at first; he is soon up to his neck in kidnapping, a drug deal gone wrong, a siege, political corruption and murder.
Kneeling At The Altar is full of incident and deft characterisation. The scenes in the Whittles' house are superb, as is the chapter with Luke Brady and his parents. The attack on Ryle's house and the siege are well done. Lusby creates a vivid impression of a Waterford caught between anonymous city and claustrophobic small town where everyone is, as the saying goes, known to the guards.
If the more philosophical investigations into the nature of education and the role of the Christian Brothers don't work quite as well, it isn't so much that they aren't well writtenBrother Hennessy in particular is a splendid creationas that this kind of expansive material is notoriously difficult for the laconic thriller form to embrace.
The McCadden books look like they have the makings of an excellent series.
THE OLD RELIGION
by David Mamet
David Mamet is the greatest and most influential American playwright alive today. He is a brilliant and distinctive screenwriter and director, whose work reaches the screen largely without studio interference. He is a witty, trenchant essayist. But 1994's The Village suggested that the novel might be an accomplishment too far, and The Old Religion does little to alter that impression.
The Old Religion is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a New York Jew who in 1915 was tried for the rape and murder of Mary Phagan. Frank was the manager of the National Pencil Factory, Atlanta, Georgia, and Phagan was one of his employees. Frank was innocent, but this did not prevent his being convicted, imprisoned, and then seized from gaol and lynched. "They covered his head, and they ripped his pants off and castrated him and hung him from a tree. A photographer took a picture showing the mob, one boy grinning at the camera, the body hanging, the legs covered by a blanket tied around the waist. The photo, reproduced as a postcard, was sold for many years in stores throughout the South."
The facts are as shocking as those of any injustice, and time has done nothing to diminish their impact. But The Old Religion's concerns lie beyond the facts. Early in the narrative, Frank's friend Morris tells the story of the Weiss family, proprietors of a dry goods store in a southern town. The Ku Klux Klan is on the march in the town, vowing death upon the Jew, and so Weiss decides he must give up his home and his business and escape by train with his wife and family. Just as they're boarding the train, three hooded men arrive and detain the Weiss family on the platform.
"'Where did you think you're going?'
'Sir', Weiss said, 'the signs said that the Jews were to leave the town.'
'Lord, Mr. Weiss, not you. You're our Jew... .'"
At the beginning of the book, Leo Frank is very much their Jew. He disdains the rabbinical tradition of the Talmud as the amusement of slaves, even though the cast of his own mind locates him firmly within that tradition. Towards the end of his ordeal, he has discovered that the freedom America promised him has been denied, that democracy is mob rule, that the Jew will never be welcome. He dreams of a nomadic life in an Eastern desert, of Palestine. This is Mamet's theme: the problem of inauthenticity the assimilated Jew faces in a Christian society.
It's a theme Mamet has dealt with before, in his film Homicide. There it didn't work because it was an essay lurking in a work of fiction. Here it doesn't work because it is a series of essays masquerading as a novel. Some of the essays are excellent, but I've read them all before, when they were essays: The Decoration of Jewish Houses, In Every Generation, The Jew For Export, Jewish Kids in a Christian Country: brilliant, impassioned pieces of argument and opinion. And this is the problem: in a work of fiction, argument has little place, and opinion none. Why? Because they get in the way of the story. Mamet the essayist wants to address Jewish issues; Mamet the artist can't make room for them. Fiction's job can never be to instruct; The Old Religion is relentlessly pedagogical.
All we're left with is the facts: that a Jew was hated, and mutilated, and murdered. The central facts of this terrible century. Perhaps we can never be reminded of them often enough.
THE LETTERS OF KINGSLEY AMIS
Edited by Zachary Leader
The first letter in this massive, massively enjoyable collection sees Amis the nineteen year-old Oxford undergraduate persuading a friend to rejoin the Communist Party. The last letter, published about six weeks before Amis's death in 1995, reproaches Auberon Waugh for following 'if we had' with 'but we don't': "Surely 'but we haven't' would be preferable in The Spectator", urges Sir Kingsley, then engaged on what would be his last book, a follow-up to Fowler called The King's English (in which we're informed that the wireless is 'now often known under American influence as the radio'). Lucky Jim Dixon shared with his creator a talent for pulling faces: there is a photograph in Eric Jacobs's 1995 biography of Amis making his Evelyn Waugh face, a jowly, pop-eyed, goutish mask of blimpishness. At some stage the wind changed, and Amis was left looking (and frequently sounding) like the older, angrier, madder Waugh. The Letters chart the grim journey from Angry Young Man to Reactionary Old Devil over the course of fifty-four years; happily, they also remind us repeatedly of the other point of comparison between Amis and Waugh: they are the two outstanding English comic novelists of the last century.
There are significant gaps in this collection: some letters to Robert Conquest that were quoted by Jacobsmainly to do with Amis using Conquest's flat for various affairsand ninety letters to Bruce Montgomery (aka Edmund Crispin) which for some reason cannot be seen until 2035. And Hilly Amis, his first wife, burned all her husband's letters when their marriage collapsed in 1963. There are letters here relating to an earlier occasion when that marriage, which seems to have been conducted in a relatively 'open' manner, was imperilled: "... far from just having an affair with old Henry Fairlie, (my wife) is in love with him ... Having one's wife fucked is one thing; having her taken away from you, plus your children, is another, I find." Amis's subsequent letter pleading with Fairlie to back off is chilling.
The majority of the correspondence is of course to Philip Larkin, Amis's closest friend and the key member of his 'inner audience.' Larkin read early drafts of Lucky Jim, and Amis compared unguarded notes with him on the important things in his life: Drink, Jazz, Women and Books (in perpetually rotating order).
"I enjoy talking to you more than to anybody else because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, brutal, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful feelings that I don't want anyone else to know about; but most of all because I am always on the verge of violent laughter when talking to you."
There is the best summing up I've read of what's wrong with Henry James: "I have done some cultural reading: The Bostonians, by you-know-who. I find the trouble is that he can't tell a story, and can't gather his observations... round any central idea. These enormous wodges of undramatised family-background, she-was-a-woman-who, he-had-first-been-attracted-to-his-present-profession-when-travelling-to balls confound me... he gives me more information than I care to have."
The frequency of the letters to Larkin diminishes during the Elizabeth Jane Howard years, but picks up again in the eighties. The following, my personal favourite, was written around the same time The Old Devils (the last unequivocally first-rate novel) was gestating: "Went to lunch at ole I Murdoch's flat today. A Polish Jew held the floor, not up to much but at least pro-Franco, which 'shocked' the others. All loved culture and thought everything was marvellous. Isn't Yeats marvellous? Isn't TSE marvellous? Isn't Magritte marvellous? Isn't Flaubert marvellous? One of them 'couldn't wait' for some exhibish to open. Another was 'very excited' that some mouldering pile had been 'saved.' And what did I think of Terry K's Proust compared to that other fellow's? Ruh-beeble de bobbledy beezle. It is against that we are fighting... Do you watch Telly? I can't remember."
The Harper Collins edition costs twenty five pounds sterling and is a shoddily-bound disgrace; mine has fallen apart after a week.
THE RAYMOND CHANDLER PAPERS
Edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane
Selected Letters and Non-Fiction 1909-1959
Raymond Chandler married a woman he thought was seven years older than him. In fact, the twice-divorced Cissy was eighteen years Chandler's senior; when she died in 1954, after several years of illness, she was eighty-four to his sixty-six. Chandler drank heavily for most of his life, he was an insomniac, he changed address regularly and he either preferred or was obliged to keep his friends at a distance. Given this combination of melancholy circumstances, the hard-boiled novelist's compulsive letter-writing can be seen as a means of avoiding total isolation; at particularly bleak times the constant flow of correspondence may even have saved him from the abyss. Whatever the reasons, the results were sublime: witty, wise, relentlessly critical (of himself as much as others) and utterly unsentimental.
"Talking of agents, when I opened the morning paper last week I saw that it had finally happened: somebody shot one. It was probably for the wrong reasons, but it was a step in the right direction."
Tom Hiney, Chandler's most recent biographer and the principal editor of this volume (the late Frank MacShane edited a previous selection of the letters) has divided the material into five acts. Act One contains some youthful essays and some poetry, and is as awful as it sounds; Act Five deals with the depressing period following Cissy's death, when, after failing to kill himself with a gun, Chandler set about finishing the job off with a bottle. Acts Two to Four cover the vital years: the first pulp stories for that great hard-boiled academy, Black Mask magazine; the early novels, from The Big Sleep to The Lady in the Lake; the call from Hollywood to work with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity, and the subsequent wealth and fame; the years of writer's block and then the final flowering with The Long Goodbye.
There is, inevitably, much on writers and writing, from the pithy"Most writers have the egotism of actors with none of the good looks or charm"to the practical"The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn't do anything else but write. He doesn't have to write... but he is not to do any other positive thing... Two very simple rules, a. you don't have to write. b. you can't do anything else. The rest comes of itself"to the speculative"Shakespeare would have done well in any generation. Alive today he would undoubtedly have directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. If some people had called his work cheap (which some of it is), he wouldn't have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything."
Chandler was an excellent critic, particularly keen to see crime writing given its due: "A very large proportion of the surviving literature of the world has been concerned with violent death in some form. And if you have to have significance (the demand for which is the inevitable mark of a half-baked culture), it is just possible that the tensions in a novel of murder are the simplest and most complete pattern of the tensions in which we live in this generation."
His life was mostly sad, and his final years pathetic, but there is nothing sadder in this collection than his rueful admission that The Long Goodbye didn't measure up to his ambitions for it: "My kind of writing demands a certain amount of dash and high spiritsthe word is gusto, a quality lacking in modern writingand you could not know the bitter struggle I have had in the last year even to achieve enough cheerfulness to live on, much less to put into a book. So let's face it: I didn't get it into the book. I didn't have it to give."
The Raymond Chandler Papers is an extraordinarily slovenly production. It lacks proper notes, the index is inadequate and, at #20, it's absurdly overpriced. The writing deserves better. But then, doesn't it always?
by Reggie Nadelson
In Sex Dolls, Reggie Nadelson's Moscow-born, New York-based private detective Artie Cohen finds himself in Parisnot, as he had planned, to tidy up an undemanding case for a private security firm while seeing the sights with his girlfriend, investigative reporter Lily Hanes, but on the trail of the thugs who raped Lily and left her for dead. Soon, with the aid of beautiful Russian prostitute Katya Slobodkin and French cop Momo Gourad, Cohen is tracking ruthless Serb pimp Zhaba from the German-Czech border to Vienna to the war-ravaged Bosnian town of Visno. As the body count soars, Cohen begins to realise that the two cases are connected, and that he's been set up by someone very close to home.
Nadelson's account of the cross-border trafficking of women for prostitution is convincingly bleak, her Paris is seedy and volatile, her Vienna a decadent wasteland. Cohen's narrative is by turns despairing and knowingly cynical, but there is something glib and voyeuristic about it all, as if these horrors are being viewed through the tinted glass of an expensive car. And Nadelson has him speak a charmless, witless New Yorkese that would like to be hard-boiled but feels a lot closer to trust-fund. Moreover, Nadelson's hold on her hero is far from secure: glad to be back in his New York apartment, tough guy Artie riffles through the party invitations before luxuriating in a hot bath, Ella Fitzgerald playing loud on the stereo. Perhaps the revelation that Cohen is really a Conde Nast fashion editor with boyfriend trouble is being saved for the next book in the series.
OUT OF THE DARK
by Natasha Cooper
Out of the Dark begins when an eight-year-old boy called David is knocked down by a car outside barrister Trish Maguire's door. As David looks just like her, and has Trish's name and address sewn into the lining of his jacket, the police assume he's Maguire's long-lost son. He's not, but Trish suspects her errant father, Paddy, may be involved. Her trawl through Paddy's ex-lovers leads her to a lawless estate in search of a prostitute called Jeannie Nest, and into confrontation with Mikey Handsome, a brutal loan shark and member of the notorious Handsome crime family. It emerges that Jeannie Nest had given the evidence that sent Mikey's uncle down for life; she then disappeared into the witness protection programme.
When the brutally murdered body of Jeannie Nest is found, Paddy Maguire immediately becomes the prime suspect in the police's investigation. Though far from convinced of her father's innocence, Trish must fight to find the real killer. Meanwhile, in her other life, Trish faces her trickiest challenge yet, acting as junior to her head of chambers in the defence of a slimy City fraudster.
Out of the Dark rattles along at an exhilarating clip, with several thrilling plot twists. There's something enjoyably Dickensian about the theme of the lost boy whose paternity must be established, not to mention wicked old Lil Handsome poring over her money-lending account books in her mouse-infested flat. On the debit side, the plot depends on a notion that goes back almost as far as Dickens: that the police are always too arrogant to listen to an amateur investigator far more brilliant than they, even whenespecially whenthe truth is staring them (and us) in the face. And while Trish Maguire is an engaging heroine, Cooper tells us more about her thoughts, feelings and opinions than we really need to know,
by Peter Robinson
Aftermath, the tenth in Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks series, comes garlanded with commendations from Dennis Lehane, Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly, and I'm not about to argue with that illustrious trio. The problem with most serial killer novels is that they're essentially melodramatic cartoons, with a cast of stock characters: the Good Detective, the Innocent Victims, the Wickedest Man in the World. Peter Robinson evades this problem by beginning at the end: with the death of Terence Payne and the gruesome discovery of five bodies buried in the cellar and back garden of his house. The investigation which then ensues must determine whether Lucy, his wife, was an abused victim herself, or a willing participant in the torture, rape and murder of the missing girls. Brian Masters' book about Rosemary West, She Must Have Known, is acknowledged by Robinson as a source, and there are echoes of the Mary Bell case here, but almost all the violence happens offstage, and the book never basks in the deliriousness of its own evil (another common failing of the sub-genre): Aftermath is about humans, not monsters, and is all the more chilling for that. Refreshing too is Robinson's flair for creating unusually complex, nuanced female characters; indeed, the only man to be treated in such depth is the edgy, subtle, haunted Inspector Banks. A marvellous book.
LETTERS TO A YOUNG CONTRARIAN
by Christopher Hitchens
In the introduction to this densely written, closely argued and timely book of advice to the young would-be radical, Christopher Hitchens acknowledges his credentials as "a grizzled soixante-huitard, or survivor of the last intelligible era of revolutionary upheaval, the one that partly ended in les evenements de quatre-vingt neuf." It's still something of a shock to those of us who've long cherished the Hitchens personalouche, raffish, spellbindingly eloquent, perpetually drunkto discover him in the role of mentor. But then he has always been a deft combination of socialist roundhead and libertarian cavalier, a columnist both for The Nation, the austere house journal of the American Left, and Vanity Fair, where austerity means giving up Cristal for Lent.
Hitchens' delight in flouting the party line (most recently over the Afghan War, which he supports) reaches a natural conclusion in this volume, when he declares that the Party is over: socialism, the cause in which he has been a "modest combatant" for most of his life, is finished. Elsewhere, he has said that there no longer exists a general socialist critique that can propose an alternative to capitalism; here, he charts his growing preference for libertarianism over excessive statism. But he still believes in class conflict, in the materialist conception of history and in the difference between monopoly capitalism and the free market, so we're hardly talking apostasy. My feeling is that his centennial study of George Orwell, (due next year) is crucial to the recent evolution of Hitchens' thought: when he alludes to the distinguished names whose dissent was conducted within and against the "Left", and when he asserts that "the best writing of George Orwell is only intelligible as part of this occluded tradition," it's difficult not to conclude that Hitchens is identifying himself explicitly with his hero.
The purpose of letters to a young contrarian is to advocate "the glories of Promethean revolt and the pleasure of sceptical inquiry," and Hitchens stresses repeatedly that the essence of the independent mind lies "not in what it thinks, but how it thinks." At times, Hitchens' aphorisms have the brilliance of a latterday Marcus Aurelius: "Beware the irrational, however seductive. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence."
Hitchens deplores the "idiocy" of consensus, and cringes when he hears "denunciations of 'the politics of division'as if politics was not division by definition." Conflict may be painful, he says, but "the painless solution does not exist in any case, and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich." Which is, among other things, as neat an encapsulation of the public policy of this great little nation of ours as any I've read.
In a passage more than a few newspaper columnists might do well to heed, he states: "To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do." And of Tom Lehrer's decision to quit satire when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Hitchens writes: "He was witty enough to know when to keep quiet, which many comedians are not." Again, pundits take note.
These letters from an ageing contrarian are the condensation of twenty-five years of inspired radical thought; ideal for the restless young, but also as a refresher course for the lapsed, the tamed and the mellowed.
GERTRUDE AND CLAUDIUS
by John Updike
John Updike's last book, a mammoth collection of left-handed writing, was called More Matter. It would be amusing then, in a glib, sneery, Dorothy Parkerish sort of way, if Gertrude and Claudius could be dispatched with the two word verdict: 'Less Art.' Amusing but unlikely: less art is not a term you can readily apply to any of Updike's intricate, meticulous prose, although occasionally, recoiling from his more ornate, overripe writing, it is precisely what you feel it might profit by.
Gertrude and Claudius (Are Not Dead Yet) is that uninvited and superfluous guest, the prequel, a novelistic imagining of how Claudius murders King Hamlet, his elder brother, assumes the throne himself and, with wicked wit and gifts, posts to incestuous sheets with Queen Gertrude. And as you might expect, it's the posting to incestuous sheets that really fires up the Ipswich Mass. Laureate of Adultery: 'She stood afire with the wish to have his lips united with hers, so their breaths would each pollute the other's, and the moisture they carried behind their teeth would thrust with their tongues into the other's warm maw.' The wicked wit is notable for its absence, the gifts are rendered with clanging literalness: Gertude is wooed and won with a cloisonne pendant, a bejewelled silver chalice (whose 'thick and encrusted stem', whose 'lumpy heft', reminds her of an erect penis) and a silk tunic: 'Gertrude touched the shimmering cloth, and in that touch was her undoing.' Claudius has spent many years in Byzantium, and has absorbed the dusk sensuality of the South. He teaches her the 'Byzantine technique' of fellatio: 'She liked it, this blind suckling, this grubbing at nature's root.' And so, gamily, exhaustingly, on.
Perhaps wisely, given his source, Updike steers clear of dramatising his material, but the result is simply that we are relentlessly told things we have already imagined. Some of this is well done: Gertrude as proto-feminist, for example: 'I was my father's daughter, and became the wife of a distracted husband, and the mother of a distant son. When do I serve the person I carry within?' There is a splendid Poloniusism: 'within a gazebo, or pergola, or some would say a belvedere or baldachino.' And the scene when King Hamlet confronts his brother with knowledge of his betrayal brings us this wonderful evocation of the adrenaline jolt of panic: 'Claudius felt supernaturally quickened, his every nerve bathed in the soothing, cleansing liquor of emergency.'
But there is rather too much cod-epic like the following: "All the three years when Horwendil roved, seizing trophies from Koll's hoard and Sela's palace and a dozen more fat ports of Sweathland and Rus, he allowed me as his liege-lord the pick of the plunder."
And by the time the novel's timescale and the play's overlap, we're treated to this cocktail-hour exchange:
'"I think he means no harm to you or Denmark," she began, half-heartedly defending her son.
"Denmark and I, my dear, are now synonymous."
"Of courseI think it's wonderful! But as to little Hamlet, there have been so many sudden changes, and he really did adore his father ... "'
But we're not listening to this inane prattle; we've long since been transported from late-mediaeval Denmark, far from the imperial court at Elsinore, to the Realm of Pure Bathos.
Updike is, as always, a profligately gifted writer; he is let down, as always, by colossal errors of taste: in this instance,
the error was to suppose Hamlet needed his overheated literary assistance. Gertrude and Claudius might have made an absorbing comic book; as serious fiction, it's ludicrous.
by Glenn Meade
In the aftermath of the horrific September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers, there was much criticism of the US security services for their failure to prevent the al-Qaeda terrorists from carrying out the atrocity. Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI, finally conceded that the Bureau had failed to listen to reports from French intelligence and tip-offs from their own field agents about the activities of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker."
The new FBI is to devote itself to the prevention of terrorist attacks. But there is surely a limit to how far any "war against terrorism" can be pursued on the home front. To provide the ultimate in anti-terrorist security, you must police your citizens to such a degree that you risk forfeiting the very thing you wish to safeguard: their freedom. Any open society must, perhaps by definition, be vulnerable not just to the fanatic's bomb and the assassin's bullet, but to attacks of a more extreme kind.
Resurrection Day is a chilling fictional account of just such an attack on Washington, DC by an al-Qaeda terrorist cell. Written before September 11, it displays an uncanny prescience on the part of its author, Dublin thriller-writer Glenn Meade. It is to be hoped that Meade's gift for prophecy is not complete, for the weapon his terrorists possess is a container of deadly nerve gas called A232X, capable of killing around half a million people and plunging the United States into utter chaos.
By videotape from his mountain base in Kandahar, Abu Hasim, the leader of al-Qaeda, informs the American President Andrew Booth that all US troops are to be withdrawn from the Middle East, and all Islamic prisoners worldwide are to be released. Failure to comply with either demand within seven days will result in the nerve gas canister being detonated in the heart of Washington.
Hasim's operativesled by the fanatical Egyptian al-Qaeda commander, Mohamed Rashidare the beautiful ex-PLO recruit Karla Sharif, who wants her son released from an Israeli jail, and Nikolai Gorev, an assassin who defected from the Russian army to fight for the Chechen cause. Charged with hunting down the terrorists are FBI agent Jack Collins, whose son was killed in the al-Qaeda attack on the USS Colean attack masterminded by Rashidand Major Alexei Kursk, a Russian special intelligence officer seconded to the FBI, and Gorev's step-brother.
When Hasim feels the Americans, who have been warned neither to evacuate the citizenry nor to hunt for the gas, are stalling on his demands, Rashid sends a suicide bomber into Washington. And then there is the traitor at the heart of the President's National Security Council, leaking information to al-Qaeda. And the clock is ticking ...
Resurrection Day has an impressive and unusually subtle geopolitical grasp, stretching from the Russians' less than glorious conduct of the Chechen war (and the acute threat posed to the Russian Federation's oil interests by Islamic fundamentalists) to the legacy of bitterness (and sympathy for the Arab cause) left by the Israeli-backed Phalangists' massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. More might have been made of the Saudi connection to al-Qaeda, but Meade's emphasis on the complexity of the global issues is a refreshing contrast to the right-wing bellicosity of Tom Clancy (although I wonder whether there is a slight doff of the hat to that doyen of the techno-thriller in that much of the action takes place around Chesapeake Bay, where Clancy has his 4000-acre estate).
Resurrection Day has been exhaustively researched, and it shows: technical and procedural details, whether in the White House, the Kremlin or among the FBI operatives, feel utterly convincing. And the strands of a hugely complex plot are drawn together expertly, without recourse to coincidence or lucky guesswork.
But at 739 pages, the novel is too long by a third at least. In the acknowledgements, a grateful Meade suggests that the reading public don't appreciate what an editor does. Well, this reader would like her to have done rather more: the early stages of the book are over-explanatory and repetitive, packed with characters telling each other things we already know.
I also had some difficult with the level of the prose. Not that it's bad, just flat and a bit dreary, with no rhythm, no resonance. You don't go to a thriller in search of fine writing, but Robert Harris (with whom Meade has more in common than Clancy, say, or Forsyth) has shown that you can make this kind of book work sentence by sentence, not just in terms of the plot.
We often say of some screen adaptation, "I'd love to read the book." I enjoyed Resurrection Day, but I'd love to see the movie.
CALL ME THE BREEZE
by Patrick McCabe
F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that there are no second acts in American lives always said more about its author than it did about America, and what it said was: "I cannot write a better novel than The Great Gatsby." No great shame there, you might think, since no-one else can either. But a writer must write, and the problem of how to follow a masterpieceeven if it's a problem most writers would cheerfully kill to acquireis not easy to solve. Martin Amis, for example, has been struggling for twenty years to emulate his greatest book, Money, and has ended up resembling the ultimate Martin Amis impersonator.
Initially, it seemed as if Patrick McCabe was simply immune to the condition. The Dead School, while not as fluently mesmerising as its great predecessor, was equally powerful, and perhaps more interestingly, with its urban setting and 1970's counter-cultural concerns, it seemed to be steering a course away from the shelter of the small town and out onto the all but uncharted surge of Irish post-modernity. But then things came unstuck. If Breakfast On Pluto was something of a whimsical holding operation, the subsequent volumes of short stories, Mondo Desperado and Emerald Germs of Ireland, read like deranged pastiches of The Butcher Boy, as if, like Amis, McCabe too was turning into his own impersonator.
Of course, it is impertinent to bemoan the choices a writer makes, or to demand that he deliver a particular type of book to keep us all happy, as if it were simply a matter of will, but there are times during Call Me The Breeze when McCabe seems to be addressing these questions explicitly. In the border town of Scotsfield, our hero, Joey Tallon, a swollen, pie-eating dreamer who shares a caravan with an inflatable doll called Mona, graduates from furtive diarist to gonzo film-maker before having an autobiographical novel called "Doughboy" (original title: The Amazing Adventures of Blobby McStink) accepted by London house Kingfisher, and published to critical rapture. Given a hefty advance to produce a second book, he finally admits defeat: "... but if it isn't there and isn't meant to be there... well, then you're fucked, aren't you? You're the one-off man, the one-hit wonder, the naive fluke artist who just happened to get lucky that one special time... Because that's the way it is with artit always suits its fucking self." Is this a sardonic meditation on McCabe's own position? It's difficult to say. But it's difficult to say much for certain about Call Me The Breeze, except that it doesn't really work on any level.
Joey Tallon is obsessed with a Wicklow girl called Jacy, whom he imagines as being Californian: one day, they will take off together, to Iowa, to Big Sur, to the USA, there to live the dream. As the first step of their road trip, Joey cuts his hair into a Mohawk, dresses as Travis Bickle and kidnaps her. In Mountjoy Prison, a progressive governor encourages his creative side, and by the time he returns to Scotsfield, he is ready to embark on a movie-making career.
Having witnessed the Provo murders of the seventies in the town, and noted how the murderers transformed themselves into the successful businessmen of the nineties, the beneficiaries of the boom, Joey's film proposes to bring this hidden past to light, to gaze into the darkness of the steaming animal pit (where one of the corpses was found) and enable Scotsfield to be re-born, having finally acknowledged the truth about the last thrty years. But the erstwhile desperadoes are not about to go down without a fight.
Call Me The Breeze is written in the form of Joey's diaries and occasional film treatments, collected by his friend Bonehead in the hope that they may add up to that difficult second novel. The diaries are rendered expertly in the painfully sincere prose style beloved of seventies teenagers, replete with exclamation marks and references to Herman Hesse, Charles Manson and Santana. But this style casts a pall of bathos over every event in the book, smothering comedy and drama alike. And as a narrator, Joey Tallon is not so much unreliable as evidently drunk in charge, and tediously delusional, with the result that you place no trust in anything he says. Revelations are telegraphed hundreds of pages in advance, suspense is entirely absent, irony is laboured. Viewed realistically, Joey's "career" as a writer and film-maker is deeply implausible; as a satire on the creative process, it's heavy sledding.
Call Me The Breeze represents a much-needed break with the Gothic comedy of the short stories. But it is not yet a return to form for this magnificent writer.
OH, PLAY THAT THING
by Roddy Doyle
(Volume Two of The Last Roundup)
When Roddy Doyle made his 'controversial' remarks about James Joyce a few months ago, outraging this great little nation with his 'astonishing' claims that Ulysses could have done with an edit and that Finnegans Wake was a terrible waste, the ensuing bun-fight among the commentariat was bizarre yet strangely familiar. 'Of course,' thought those of us who could remember the early nineties, 'back then, this used to happen all the time.' Like the Roy Keane Incident, every taxi driver and his fare had an opinion about Roddy Doyle: he was gas, he was a genius, he was patronising the (non-)working class, he was making a show of us for his English publishers, he was the authentic voice of post-Catholic urban Ireland, he was, inevitably, only a bollocks. Literary critics and academics queued up to make fools of themselves, declaring that novels consisting principally of dialogue weren't novels at all but television scripts, thus displaying their ignorance of: a) television scripts, and b) the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green and George V. Higgins, among others. And then Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize and the National Conversation said, "Fair play to him," and lumbered off to burden someone else with its attention. And Doyle went on his chameleon way, painstakingly assembling a body of work so technically and thematically varied it sometimes seems to have been written by diverse hands. (Louis Armstrong plays a central role in Oh Play That Thing, but the great jazz trumpeter Doyle most resembles in this respect is Miles Davis: there's a mercurial restlessness; the default modes are change, innovation, transformation. Simply put, you have no idea what kind of book he'll write next.)
The Last Roundupof which Oh Play That Thing is the second volumeis an epic novel (by David Copperfield out of The Tin Drum, with nods to Peter Carey, William Kennedy and E.L. Doctorow along the way), and when it comes to history, epics don't skulk around the servants' entrance muttering, they march right up and bellow through the front door: the action is both particular and emblematic.
So in Volume One, A Star Called Henry, Henry Smart is taught to read by James Connolly, he's in the GPO during Easter week, he's one of Michael Collins's trusted killers, he becomes a Republican Gunman On The Run. He is a centre-stage-Irishman being Irish in Ireland. (Of course, the Ireland Doyle depicts is far from the staid, repressed land recorded by social historians, not least considering the sexual voracity displayed by its women folk when confronted by the all-consuming gorgeousness of Henry Smart.)
Oh Play That Thing proceeds like a series of black and white Warner Brothers movie scenarios: Henry gets embroiled with gangsters peddling hooch in Prohibition Manhattan, assists Louis Armstrong at the birth of his greatest jazz masterpieces, hits bottom during the Great Depression, jumping boxcars with his destitute family, and ends up a one-legged, toothless hobo dying in the desert. Happily, the desert is Monument Valley, My Darling Clementine is in production and Henry is rescued by Sean Feeny, aka John Ford, the great Irish-American director :
'It's your story. How's an Irish rebel end up here? That's the real Irish story. We both know that. And that's the story we're going to tell.'
Print the legend? Yes, of course, but undermine it too: Henry Smart's America is awash with ironies, beginning on Ellis Island when the immigration official accepts his ten dollar bribe, then waves him through with an admonitory 'slan leat.'
'They've no memory here. It gets in the way of progress,' Henry later tells his wife, Miss O' Shea, assuring her that one of the several sets of gangsters on his trail will soon give up. 'It's not like Ireland. They forget here. There's plenty to do.'
'There are Irish boys here too, Henry. And they have memories,' she replies, and indeed, it is ultimately the Irish he needs to fear most. Is Doyle's point that for all the miles he has travelled, Henry never really leaves Ireland? Or that in the twenties and thirties, America encapsulated the truth about the Irish more than Ireland did? It's probably too early to say, for it seems to me we are not two novels into a three novel sequence, we're two thirds of the way through one complete novel, so any conclusions are of necessity provisionalexcept that this is so much more than a masterfully composed epic spree. Within the broad-brush picaresque lie scenes of piercing complexity, written in a spare prose that is fresh as paint, that crackles like frost underfoot.
Henry's journey as Louis Armstrong's white man is brilliantly imaginedDoyle's recreation of Armstrong captures the humour, the frailty and the boundless charisma of the great man, and, for a jazz fan, his depiction of the live performances and the great Hot Five recording sessions is thrilling. Here he is getting the final take of West End Blues down, courtesy of Henry's ability to blag extra studio time.: 'And Louis put the horn to his lip and blew the opening cadenza... and it was all new again, the most difficult music anyone had ever played, easy and surprising all over again.'
Thrilling too is the sexual depth charge Henry lays with gangster Oweny Madden's girfriend. Having made a pornographic film together, the pair flee to a hick town and drive its inhabitants delirious with lust by the erotic power of their own glamourjust like movie stars. Jazz and the movies: the American popular culture that will colonise the century, and Henry Smart is in there, stirring the pot.
We won't know for sure until the final third comes inalthough it's not too early to say that what we have so far is utterly magnificent, the finest work he has done but maybe there was an unconscious prescience in Doyle choosing to criticise Ulysses as he did, for in the heavyweight division of Great Irish Novel challengers, The Last Roundup is shaping up to be quite a contender.
THE SWING OF THINGS
by Sean O'Reilly
Noel Boyle is a former paramilitary from Derry who has come down to Dublin to study at Trinity and to escape from the past: 'To take his life into his own hands and make something. Revival was a word he liked for it: he wanted to revive himself.' He is studying philosophy, he has a beard, he broods about his dogged, inert disposition. Known as "Buddha Boyle" in prison (he left the IRA and transferred from the H Blocks to Maghaberry in order to work, study and meditate), he recalls a nightmare in which he is trapped in an artificial world, and offers his soul to a beautiful woman who can help him escape, 'for I am not the type of man who needs a soul anyway.'
Boyle becomes obsessed with the death of a young woman, thought to be an immigrant, who drowned in the Liffey. The police have issued a plaster cast of her dead, smiling face:
'A happy death, he thought.
Say he stared at the smile until his eyes grew heavy.
Say he put his face in his hands and stayed that way for a long time, wondering at the nausea in his guts.'
Boyle encounters Fada, a filthy, drunken, deranged tatterdemalion, a 'ragged proclaimer' who recites poetry in Grafton Street on request. Recently homeless, improbably successful with women, some of whom pay him for sex, Fada fears he was raped by a swan, and has a hatred of the birds: 'How could people control their rage at the sight of them, the revolting dignity, the decadent grace? Why didn't people attack them with hammers? Pour petrol in and set the water aflame. The rats farting and clapping in the rushes. See then the tumultous fiery wings outspread.' Fada is himself compared to a bird, flapping his wings in antic flight, ranting and raving from pub to club.
Much to Boyle's disgust, replica masks of the drowned girl go on sale around the city. At a party, Fada draws Boyle into a fight with the shaven-headed, tatooed-skulled youth who crafted the replica mask. Boyle beats up the youth and his friends. At the funeral of a woman whose late husband's irreplaceable poems Fada had taken and lost, Boyle meets Eleanor and they have a brief affair. When Eleanor tells him she's going back to her boyfriend in London, Boyle lapses once more into his habitual Derry air of self-pity and solemn rage, until Fada is attacked and pissed on by the mask-maker. Fada and Boyle are then shadowed by the mask-maker late at night on the quays, and the ensuing confrontation sends Boyle back to his old comrades to seek a way out of the grave he's been digging for himself.
The prodigiously gifted Sean O'Reilly writes unusually well about sex, and captures vividly the deathly seductiveness of the afternoon pub, and the dissolute splendour of Dublin's demi-monde of drunken students and aimless wastrels. But Fada is more fabulation than character, a Gingerman by Leda out of Sweeney, and his verbal flights are brilliant but arid, like exercises in fine writing. Meanwhile, the angst-ridden, ponderous Boyle seems to have escaped from a Sartre novel. Ultimately, I'm afraid I found myself agreeing with Boyle's old friend from Derry, the excellent Dainty: 'Jesus, he said, just try and get into the fucken swing of it will you for fuck's sake. And get rid of that beard for a start.'
by Ian Rankin
Fleshmarket Close is the fifteenth Inspector Rebus novel. Within a week of its release, it was already in the top ten bestseller list in the UK. Business as usual then, for its supernaturally prolific author. But it mightn't have happened at all. Seven books into the series, sales were not as his publishers had hoped, and he was about to be dropped. The eighth Rebus novel, Black and Blue, would be his last chance. Happily, Black and Blue became Rankin's 'breakthrough book.' Not only would each subsequent title sell by the truckload, but new readers now had a backlist to catch up on.
You'd think this little tale might serve as a positive fable for the book world, teaching as it does a clear lesson about the need to nurture authors, and to show patience when a writer's work doesn't sell automatically. Not a bit of it. As one industry figure put it to me recently, 'nowadays they don't want to wait around for eight books. They want book one to be book eight.' Indeed, recently Rankin himself, while championing Allan Guthrie's debut, Two-way Split, which was published in the US having failed to secure a UK deal, suggested that UK publishers might claim they were searching for 'the new Ian Rankin,' but they were going the wrong way about it.
The crucial point about Rankin's success is that it is so unlikely: he is essentially writing humble 'police procedurals,' traditionally the meat and potatoes of the genre. There's no high concept cartoon formula, and mercifully few serial killers (the bane of contemporary crime writing, serial killer novels, with their cod psychology, their psychopath-as-artist fascist aesthetic and their nauseating sentimentality, will one day be classed with the kind of rubbish concocted in the past by Sax Rohmer, Mickey Spillane and 'Sapper'). The divorced, misanthropic detective with a sharp tongue and a fondness for drink, the female colleague with a chocolate habit and an uncertain love life, fighting her corner in a male environment: DI John Rebus and DS Siobhan Clarke are, on one level, nothing new. But Rankin imagines them with such intensity, situates them in an Edinburgh that is so vividly rendered, and gives them cases of such mindbending complexity to solve that he achieves a stunning harmony of character, genre and dark social realism.
Fleshmarket Close opens with a classic triple punch: an asylum seeker has been found stabbed to death in a council estate underpass; the parents of Tracy Jardine, a rape victim who committed suicide three years ago, ask DS Clarke, who investigated the original case, to help find the girl's missing sister Ishbel; the skeletons of a mother and baby are discovered buried beneath concrete in a pub store-room in Fleshmarket Close. The three seemingly disparate plots are, of course, connected, and as always with Rankin, trying to keep pace with the narrative as its revelations unfold and interweave is like watching a masterclass in crime writing. But we can infer a great deal from the names alone, steeped as they are in the sour irony of national myth gone awry. The council scheme is called Knoxland, with its four high-rise blocks named Barrie House, Stevenson House, Scott House and Burns House: 'Knoxland had been built in the 1960s, apparently from papier mache and balsa wood. In the past, it had been used as a dumping ground for tenants the council found hard to house elsewhere: addicts and the unhinged. More recently, immigrants had been catapulted into its dankest, least-welcoming corners.' The murdered man was a Turkish Kurd, and his wife and children are being held at an 'immigration removal centre' called Whitemire. Ishbel Jardine's village, whose precarious economy depends entirely upon the employment opportunities offered at Whitemire, is called Banehall. And while unearthing skeletons is a doughty genre staple, unearthing them in Edinburgh is inevitably redolent of Burke and Hare and the gruesome local gothic of bodysnatching. This nicely prefigures its modern analogue, the human traffic in immigrants for use as virtual slaves, and the resonantly titled Fleshmarket Close, while dealing even-handedly with the various issues, delivers a scorching indictment of Scotland's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Given the result of our jolly little referendum on the same subject, an Irish reader will certainly feel the heat.
As for Rebus and Siobhan, the kiss that ended A Question of Blood still lingers. In the past, I wouldn't have wished Rebus on anyone; now it's beginning to look like Siobhan is his match. Unlikely as it seems, I wouldn't bet against it: on current form, Rankin could do whatever he likes. If you read a better novel than Fleshmarket Close this year, in any genre, you'll be lucky.
by Bryan Burrough
The True Story of America's Greatest Crime Wave
When the FBI finally caught up with John Dillinger outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, the picture playing was Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster film starring William Powell and Clark Gable. But none of the public enemies who plied their trade in the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34 ever set foot in Manhattan, although their exploits would eventually make the front page of the New York Times. The dust bowls and hardscrabble farms, the rural towns and Depression-blighted cities of Oklahoma, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, Kansas and Illinois, formed the backdrop to the riot of bank robbery, kidnapping and murder perpetrated by Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis and the Barker gang. The poverty and desperation of those years contributed to a climate in which psychopaths and trigger-happy hillbillies were seen as folk heroes striking a blow against greedy bankers, as unelected tribunes of the people. The crowds who gathered around the corpse of John Dillinger pressed their handkerchiefs in his blood to keep as souvenirs, locks of Bonnie Parker's hair were sheared from her scalp, and a man had to be restrained from cutting off the dead Clyde Barrow's ear. Yet even the most attractive of these figures, the genuinely charismatic John Dillinger, was a murderer. Fleeing the scene of a bank robbery in Indiana, Detective Patrick O'Malley fired on him. Dillinger shot the father of three little girls dead. He denied this murder for the rest of his life. 'At the heart of his appeal... was his joshing Robin Hood spirit, the sense people had that he was a regular guy making the best of hard times.' Quite apart from the FBI's inexperience in practical crime-fighting, it was in this context of myth-making and legend-printing that the fledgling organisation first struggled to compete with its foes.
Bryan Burrough's book is terse and unsentimental; he's not much interested in theories or ideas; he wastes little time on those he considers second-raters, unless there is a myth to be debunked. Of all the crime wave cast list, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker loom largest in our consiousness, probably because they are the only ones who had a decent movie made about them. But as Burrough says, 'the movie characters had little in common with their real-life counterparts, lazy drifters who murdered nearly a dozen innocent men.' At a time when veteran 'yeggs' (bank robbers) were making $50,000 a job, Bonnie and Clyde were seen, even by their contemporaries, as 'minor-league outlaws, gas-station bandits doing battle with hick sherrifs,' whose biggest payday was barely $3,800. For a time, Clyde tried to adopt some of Dillinger's moves, perhaps in the hope of attracting some of Dillinger's popularity: on a bank job in Lancaster, Dallas, he returned cash to a customer, saying, 'We don't want your money. We just want the bank's,' an exact echo of Dillenger's reported words in Indiana. But soon Bonnie and Clyde were back on the bloody trail, a trail that would lead to their ambush and death in the Louisiana backwoods. Burrough's final verdict on the myth is unforgiving: 'Art has taken a shark-eyed murderer and his deluded girlfriend and... (imbued) them with a cuddly likeablility they did not possess, and a cultural significance they do not deserve.'
Baby Face Nelson was a psychopath, plain and simple. One night a thirty-five year old paint salesman named Ted Kidder, angry at being overtaken by Nelson's Hudson, cut back in front of him. Nelson tried to force Kidder to the kerb; Kidder headed for a drugstore to call the police. When he got out of the car, Nelson shot him twice in the gut. Kidder's wife ran to her husband, screaming, 'You've killed him.'
'Keep your damn mouth shut,' Nelson snapped, 'or I'll let you have it too.'
When it came to dividing up the spoils of a job, Nelson's fellow gang members would ensure that he was always in the centre of the room, where he could be watched; they lived in fear that he would decide to shoot them all and make off with the money.
The greatest disappointment to me was to discover that Ma Barker was not the machine-gun wielding brains of the Barker gang, but a 'frowzy hillbilly woman whose only interest... (was) doing jigsaw puzzles and listening to Amos 'n' Andy.' J. Edgar Hoover, in an attempt to forestall a press outcry over her death (when Fred Barker fired on the FBI from their Florida house, she was killed in the ensuing shoot-out), portrayed her as a criminal mastermind: "the withered fingers of spidery, crafty Ma Barker (were) like satanic tentacles.' In a line worthy of David Mamet, Hoover said, 'We had to kill her to catch up with her.' This fit well with themes Hoover had been pushing all along: the root cause of crime was not poverty or inequality, but parents who did not teach their children right from wrong.
The real brains behind the Barker gang was Alvin Karpis, a cold, aloof, highly intelligent criminal who outlived almost all his crime wave contemporaries. So humiliated was Hoover by Karpis's defiance that he contrived to be on the scene when the FBI pounced, and quickly stepped in, posing as the arresting agent. This consolidated Hoover's position as a national hero, and the myth of the FBI, the all powerful 'G-Men,' began to spread through newsreels, movies and comic books. Karpis meanwhile spent years on Alcatraz with the Birdman and Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly; he taught Charles Manson to play the steel guitar on Terminal Island; released, he spent his last years in Spain, outliving them all, outliving even the man whose reputation he claimed to have made: J. Edgar Hoover himself.
I liked the scene where the Barker molls, bored with their lives as fugitives, dress up in their finest clothes and jewels and drink for the afternoon at the Cleveland Hotel. By five, they are so drunk they are asked to leave; when a policewoman is called, one of the women offers her a diamond bracelet to leave them alone.
But it's Dillinger I kept coming back to: his prison break using only a wooden gun, his lopsided grin, his easy charm. Yes, he was a killer, but he was also a star (once voted more popular than Roosevelt) who knew how to play his audience: 'I am not a bad fellow, ladies and gentlemen. I was just an unfortunate boy who started wrong.'
THE SECRET LIFE OF OSCAR WILDE
by Neil McKenna
You'd imagine that a book entitled The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde might have uncovered some serious Bunburying on the part of its subject. Perhaps Oscar disappeared every now and again to Somerset, where he impersonated a blacksmith and played rugger for the village team. Or maybe he assumed the role of a Clydeside caulker, and beat a Lambeg drum in his local Orange walk. You'd imagine at the very least that Wilde did something unexpected, in secret, that we hadn't heard about until now.
You'd imagine wrong. Neil McKenna has set out 'to chart Oscar's odyssey to find his true sexual self, from the troubled and uncertain first stirrings of his feelings for other men, to the joyous paganism of his last years in exile.' In other words, Oscar Wilde's secret was that he had sex with men. Yes, you probably thought you knew that already. But wait, there's more. It appears as if Wilde had sex with virtually every man he ever met. Or rather, it is 'almost certain' that he did.
'By early summer, Oscar and Frank (Miles) were good friends, and were almost certainly lovers,' we read on page 11, only to be told on the next page that this putative sexual relationship 'is unlikely to have been monogamous.' Oscar is soon availing himself of his 'sexual freedom' by rushing into 'friendship' with Arthur May. A short while later, Wilde meets the poet James Rendell Rodd, whereupon 'sex may well have entered the romantic equation, almost certainly at Oscar's instigation.'
Wilde's first lecture tour saw him fall prey to the wiles of a confidence trickster, who snared him into an illegal dice game in which Wilde lost $1,200. Or at least, that's the official version. McKenna is sceptical, however: 'Was it in reality a pick-up on Fifth Avenue, and had Oscar gone to the young man's rooms expecting, perhaps even getting, sex, only to be threatened with exposure unless he paid up there and then?... If there was a sexual dimension to the incident, then it marked the first of many occasions when Oscar would fall victim to crimes associated with his sexual tastes.' Well, yes, and if there wasn't, then it didn't.
This is McKenna's method: when there is no evidence one way or another for a sexual relationship, assume there was one. Where evidence is present but unreliable, refer to the unreliability and then rely on it anyway, provided it supports the book's thesis: that Wilde asserted the wonder of love, spiritual and sexual, between a man and a youth, that he wished 'to live in his 'sexual faith', to profess and promulgate his sexual faith and if necessary, to become a martyr to it.' Memoirs of Wilde by Frank Harris, Robert Sherrard and Andre Raffalovich that have long been considered dubious are cited as authoritative. In the case of the legendary fantasist, Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, McKenna states: 'Although Trelawny Backhouse's memoirs are not always accurate or, indeed, true, his accounts of his schooldays at Winchester and of his subsequent involvement in the Oscar Wilde scandal have the ring of authenticity.' Why? Because McKenna wants to believe in their accuracy or, indeed, truth. When Wilde meets Andre Gide in Paris, it is noteworthy that we are told 'There is no evidence that the two of them had a love affair, or even sex;' noteworthy precisely because it is a rare exception to the book's guiding rule.
None of which is intended to suggest that Wilde was not a promiscuous homosexual, or 'Uranian' as the parlance of the day had it. And it is certainly correct that Wilde's sexuality has not generally been given its proper emphasis in previous biographies. But McKenna's decision to concentrate solely on the story of Wilde's sex life serves not as a corrective so much as a distortion, a misguided project to define a great artist purely in terms of his sexuality.
Rather than the life serving to illuminate the work, the work is continually mined for biographical significance, as if works of art are diaries by other means. Moreover, the idea that the paradoxes and complexities of the life find their most truthful expression in the art lies at odds with McKenna's mission to present Wilde as a gay exemplar. This culminates in an especially obtuse reading of The Importance of Being Earnest, a play from which McKenna believes the womenGwendolen, Cecily, Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism'emerge particularly badly and reflect Oscar's dislike of women; they are all portrayed as selfish, scheming, manipulative, jealous and grasping.' One might say that this is simply wrong, or that it completely ignores the place of role-playing and comic artifice; one might add, as McKenna is quickly compelled to, that the men do not 'emerge' with any greater honour; one might eventually despair as the concept of Bunburying is narrowly defined as a 'codeword for the love that dare not speak its name,' and the universe of the play is described as 'immoral.' Wilde's plays derive much of their anarchic sheen from the duality of his life as a married man and active homosexual; what they are not, in any essential way, are coded depictions of that life.
McKenna has had access to recently discovered witness statements from the rent boys and others Wilde had sex with during the years of his love affair with Bosie; these provide as detailed an account as anyone might wish for of what he got up to and with whom, although not detailed enough to quell McKenna's indefatigable speculation: 'Oscar enjoyed irrumination, or cock-sucking, and there was no reason why he should not have equally enjoyed being sodomised;' 'Oscar may have been flexible, perhaps taking both roles, that of penetrator and penetrated.' 'Significantly, it was Oscar's night-shirt which... had been stained with a mixture of Vaseline, semen and excrement, suggesting that the discharge had come from Oscar's rectum.'
There is a great deal of repetition, and rather too much breathless, novelettish prose: 'In the course of their love affair they had feasted with panthers, fought with blackmailers and gambled with the danger of exposure, arrest and imprisonment. Now they were both playing for the highest stakes.'
And McKenna's insistence that, contrary to the received legend of Wilde's life 'ebbing out in squalor and destitution and abandonment', his last years in Paris were happy ones replete with 'joyous paganism' is only credible if you accept that alcoholism, gluttony and an obsession with street prostitutes served as any adequate recompense for the complete disintegration of Wilde's artistic powers.
There is no bibliography, and the notes are sketchy; the book is handsomely produced, and has lavender endpapers.
by Martin Amis
It used to be that he couldn't put a foot wrong. More than a decade of glittering success. Men wanted to be him. Women wanted to bed him (and it sometimes felt as if they all had). He was edgy and dark, funny and clever and incomparably glamorous. And then, overnight, it seemed, his work lost favour, and the formerly adoring press turned on him. And soon, the work simply didn't matter any more: it was all about the divorces, the huge cheques, the fall-outs with celebrity friends. On a slow news day, you could always plug a gap with eight hundred words pulling him asunder. Poor Mick Jagger. And poor Martin Amis, the absurdly styled "Mick Jagger of English fiction," whose misfortune it has been to have not just readers but fans. And of course, when their idol releases a bad record, or writes a second-rate novel, fans don't just feel disappointed, they feel betrayed. And since many of Martin Amis's most obsessive fans were journalists, they were in a position to read the litany of his sins off the altar, week in, week out. Imagine wanting to earn as much money as you can for the work you do. Imagine having treatment to correct painful dental problems. Imagine thinking fiction can deal with science, or nuclear weapons, or the Holocaust. Who does the cocky little bastard think he is?
Clint Smoker, the hero of one of the three main plot strands in Yellow Dog, is a journalist on the Morning Lark, the kind of newspaper that puts a forty-four triple-F breasted model on the cover:'There was of course hardly any news in the Lark, and no global catyclysm had yet had the power to push the pinup off the front page.' High IQ moron Smoker lives in Foulness, near Southend, in a pornography-saturated semi of 'untouchable sordor;' he cannot get a girlfriend because he has an unfeasibly small penis ('I'm sorry, love, but I can't feel you.'); he writes video reviews with sensitive admonitions like 'Have your bogroll handy for when gueststar Dork Bogarde pumps his lovepiss over the heaving norks of our very own Donna Stange.' Clint editorialises too, in the odious guise of Yellow Dog: 'So some so-called 14-year-old is crying "rape" after a bit of fun in a ditch with an older lad.' In Experience, Amis wrote about 'pernicious neutrality'- the journalistic imperative to find the other side of every story, however morally perverse that 'other side' may be. The entire Clint Smoker-Morning Lark strand forms a bitterly personal satire on the pathologies, the excesses, the crass inadequacies of newspapers and the people who write for them, and indeed, the people who write so crassly about Martin Amis in them. However, it doesn't amount to a great deal more than that: Clint is targeted by a female 'admirer' who sends him lengthy e-mails in the form of text messages; eventually, he meets her and is shocked by what he finds, but the reader is not remotely surprised. The scenes in the Morning Lark are great fun, but the story doesn't really go anywhere.
Great fun too, to begin with, are the Firbank-out-of-Wodehouse alternative England scenes involving nice-but-dim Henry IX ('the King, at fifty-one, was senescent with ennui'), his equerry Brendan Urquhart-Gordon (nicknamed Bugger), his Chinese Mistress He Zizhen ('He touched him and he touched He.') and the beautiful Princess Victoria, who has been secretly filmed taking a bath. Bugger's attempts to suppress this film, which, it gradually emerges, is rather more graphicindeed, pornographicthan first thought, form the thin substance of this nonetheless amusing strand, which, again, peters out in rather a damp squib conclusion; given that the stakeswill the monarchy survive or not?are pretty low, it could hardly be otherwise.
No, the real meat and drink of Yellow Dog is contained in the main plot, which might have formed a full-length novel in itself: actor, writer and gangster's son Xan Meo publishes a book of short stories, one of which contains an arch literary reference to Joseph Andrews, the Henry Fielding hero. Joseph Andrews, the notorious semi-retired villain, mistakenly believes Xan has 'taken a liberty' by naming him, so he has Xan coshed by minder Mal Bale (resurfacing from the Amis short story 'State of England'). And, much to the dismay of his wife, Russia, and daughters Sophie and Billie, Xan regresses from a 'calm, slow-moving, encouraging, approving, protective, affectionate man' to an East-End caveman with Post-Traumatic Satyriasis ('At first Russia had faked orgasms. Then she started faking migraines. And now the migraines were real.'). Worse, he is displaying an evidently sexual interest in Billie, his four year-old daughter. Having tried to rape his wife, Xan is thrown out of his house, and is lured by his porn-star half-sister to Fucktown USA, porn capital of the world, home of 'hatefuck, cockout and boxback, of blackeye, of whitehair, of yellowtongue.' Here Xan experiences an epiphany of sorts: that 'getting older, two of you, sexually' is the best thingand that 'porno's the sworn enemy of that.' Or, as Mal Bale advises him, in words that could be an epigraph to everything Amis has written for the last ten years, 'At our age, boy, you're a joke without your wife. Your kids and that.' The novel concludes with Xan's baby girl taking her first tentative steps.
Yellow Dog is as funny as the East End gangsters Amis loves to pastiche ('I had such a reputation for enduring pain that when the prison dentist offered me an injection I felt duty bound to chin him.'), and as sentimental. Perhaps not vintage then, but the comparison with Mick Jagger holds good: he still does brilliantly things no-one else can do at all. Least of all, the journalists who hate him.
THE GOOD LIFE
by Jay McInerney
Jay McInerney is still probably best known for his brilliant first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, but his finest book is Brightness Falls, set against the Black Monday financial meltdown of 1987, when greed turned out not to have been so good after all. Brightness Falls captured the dying fall of the eighties through the eyes of Russell and Corrine Calloway and their doomed writer friend Jeff Pierce. Although the Calloways weren't technically bright young thingsthey worked for a living, Russell in publishing, Corrine on Wall Streetit was difficult to resist the comparisons with Fitzgerald: Brightness Falls was witty, romantic, intoxicated with the promise of a great city while suffused with loss, and McInerney seemed the closest there was to a spokesman for, or at least, chronicler of, a generation. But after The Last of the Savages, a gripping trawl through sixties rebellion to nineties conformity flawed by a narrative voice too deliberately styled after Nick Carraway, McInerney seemed to lose his way. Model Behaviour was an absurd book that demanded we take seriously the supposed emotional travails of a man obsessed with fashion models. In Vanity Fair last year, he published a piece about some Wall Street billionaire who left town to live upstate; how would this colossusthe real-life model for Mr Big in Sex and the City, McInerney rhapsodised breathlesslyresist the siren song of a Manhattan restaurant opening, a fashion show, a charity ball? Suddenly the erstwhile laureate of NYC sounded like a fourteen year-old girl from Iowa with a Vogue subscription, or Dominick Dunne.
The Good Life revisits the Calloways fourteen years later. Having taken five years out to raise her babies, Corrine Calloway is back at work of a sort, writing a screenplay adaptation of The Heart of the Matter and trying to raise seed money for Momtomtom.com, an online resource for young mothers. The Calloways have been renting a TriBeCa loft through the nineties, and having to survive on a book editor's salary with two kids means they couldn't afford to buy a summer place in the Hamptons like all their friends. Russell, initally supportive of Corrine's choices, is now resentful over their straitened finances, pained that "his stay-at-home wife had become translucent, if not invisible, within the walls of their lofta nanny without a salary." Things are no better in the bedroom: "Sex had become a yawning chasm between them. The white sheet... like a blank page she couldn't find the words to fill."
Luke McGavock is an Upper East Side Mr Big who has given up his job to find himself, much to the consternation of his socialite wife Sasha, a legendary beauty and charity ball queen who uses "to die" and "beyond" as terms of approbation, and likes to talk about how "a lot of people are doing the three house thingone place an hour outside the city and another in the Hamptons for the summer." At a charity event in Central Park Zoo on the night of September 10, 2001, Luke discovers Sasha is having an affair, and has a row with his fourteen year-old daughter Ashley, who he discovers drunk and flirting with a sleazy older man. The ensuing domestic strife causes Luke to rearrange his breakfast appointment the following morning at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre.
Corrine meets Luke staggering up West Broadway, "coated head to foot in dun ash"; they both volunteer at the same Ground Zero soup kitchen, and they both begin to fall in love. The news that Russell has been having a squalid affair sweeps aside the last remnants of Corrine's guilt, and the affair begins.
There is much to admire in The Good Lifein trying to capture the way we live now, it is the kind of book you wish more writers would attempt. The set-piece dinners and parties are marvellously done, and the comparison Luke makes at the ball on the eve of 9.11 between the glamorously gowned ladies and the figures he'd seen on holiday in Pompei, "frozen in their postures of feasting and revelry" haunts the book.
Or it would, if McInerney had any real perspective on New York. The probem with The Good Life is that almost everyone in it is far too rich and self-absorbed to care about. At some level, McInerney knows this, which is why he has the Calloways still renting their loft, knowing that if they had bought it in the early ninetiesand given their jobs, they would havethey would have gained from the property boom, bought their house in the Hamptons and forfeited our sympathy. The characters who aren't moguls or heiresses all work in the arts and media; it's the hermetically sealed world according to Conde Nast. The ash of 9.11 brushes off like Long Island leaves, and The Good Life continues as before.
The rich may be different from us, but it doesn't make them interesting; McInerney's problem as a novelist is that he loves them too much to render them clearly, and he no longer has any interest in anyone else. It could be the subject of a bittersweet short story by Fitzgerald. For a writer of such gifts, it's a great shame.
by Joseph O'Neill
Novels are about love and sex and death and The Way We Live Now, or they are about nothing much at all. Except, of course, if they are American novels, in which case they get to be about all these things and about America too. Not America the countryone might as well read a guidebookbut America the Enlightenment idea, America the dream of yearning and infinite possibility, America as represented by Jay Gatsby's green light, "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us."
In his remarkable new novel, Joseph O'Neill does not make any bones about his debt to Fitzgerald's great masterpiece: when, on page two, his diffident narrator Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker who will be more spectator than protagonist in his own story, says of his time in New York, "But there's no such thing as a cheap longing, I'm tempted to conclude these days", the shade of Nick Carraway appears instantly at his shoulder. On the same page, a note of dark pastoral sounds when we are told that New York City insists on "memory's repetitive mower", which has the effect of "cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course."
The unattainable green in Netherland is not the light at the end of a dock, but the bright grass of a cricket pitch, and the dream is of cricket as a civilizing, cosmopolitan force that will rid the US of its insularity and enable it to build bridges with the immigrant Muslims and Hindus who play the game. Give It Back To The Indians, so to speak. O'Neill's Gatsby is Chuck Ramkissoon, Trinidadian immigrant, motormouthed autodidact, builder and developer and small-time gangster whose murdered body is discovered in a canal at the start of the book, and whose ebullient comic spirit is celebrated throughout its length; it is a measure of O'Neill's considerable novelistic gifts that Chuck's quixotic dream never subsides into bathos, or loses its glamorous allure.
O'Neill, an Irish-born, Dutch-raised barrister based in New York, has published two previous novels, but he is probably best known for Blood-Dark Track, a family history of his grandfathers' imprisonment during the second world warone was interned for being a member of the IRA, the other, a Turk, was suspected of spying for the Germanswhich read like an espionage thriller.
Hans van den Broek "a member of the first tribe of New York, excepting of course the Red Indians"falls gradually under Chuck Ramkissoon's spell as he spends two lonely, wretched years alone in New York. Anxious for the family's safety, his wife has taken their son back to London in the doom-laden aftermath of 9/11, a trial separation that is showing ominous signs of permanence. The marriage has collapsed because they are frightened, and angry at each other, and tired all the time, and because Hans, to his shame, cannot find it in himself to fight what he fears is inevitable: "that love was loss, that nothing worth saying was sayable, that dullness was general, that disintegration was irresistible." He walks the streets of the city, a melancholy, acute observer of its signs and wonders: "The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits" but if you looked down "you saw a foul mechanical dark"; "The tail lights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the lit store fronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refined into a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown"; Times Square's billboards and news tickers are "shimmers and vapours", to be regarded "as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city's pigeonsas natural, humble sources of iridescence."
The pick-up games of cricket among the Asians and West Indians of New York provide Hans initially with a respite from desolation; slowly the players become companions and finally, undemonstratively, as is the way with men, friends. Hans has not been an especially valuable asset to the team because he refuses to alter his orthodox batting style to suit the hardscrabble cricket pitches, but in the last game of the season, he experiences his own fleeting epiphany of release and reinvention: "I'd hit the ball in the air like an American cricketer, and I'd done so without injury to my sense of myself."
Netherland ends triumphantly, numinously, with two sunsets: one in London, atop the Eye, Hans happily reunited with his family; the other on the Staten Island Ferry as it approaches pre-lapsarian Manhattan, the twin towers looming, his mother alive and by his side. In a sustained passage of intense lyric beauty that more than squares any debt to Fitzgerald, O'Neill writes: "I wasn't the only one of us to make out and accept an extraordinary promise in what we sawthe tall approaching cape, a people risen in light. You only had to look at our faces."
by John Connolly
Edgar Allan Poe is generally thought to be the founding father of crime fiction, although as befits an often lurid and historically disreputable genre, paternity has long been disputed, with accusing fingers wagging in the various directions of William Godwin, Eugene-Francois Vidocq and even Wilkie Collins. Certainly Poe's five Inspector Dupin stories are the first detective stories, although he didn't see them in that light, or rank them as highly as his other writing. Poe's roots lay in the Gothic and the romantic, and he produced tales not simply of mystery and imagination but of horror and terror. It was appropriate then that the Irish crime writer John Connolly should make an appearance in these pages recently to review a new biography of Poe, for it has sometimes seemed as if Connolly's entire project has been nothing less than to reintegrate Poe's morbid and sensational asesthetic into the body of mainstream crime fiction.
Not that Connolly is some kind of literary archaeologist or pasticheur; he has simply interpreted the parameters of a genre he prefers to describe as "mystery fiction" rather more broadly than many of his contemporaries. In Connolly's visionary brand of apocalyptic neo-noir, men and angels inhabit the same plane; demons are not psychological troubles but realities; the Gods may be dead, but still, they watch and wait. At the same time, the first five Maine novels, featuring PI Charlie Parker, along with the stand-alone Bad Men, were terrifically exciting, tightly plotted thrillers redolent in particular of the work of James Lee Burke and Thomas Harris: written in an uncommonly fine, supple, sensuous prose, these dark, violent, volatile books worked brilliantly within the genre while consistently provoking and subverting it.
And then something happened. It was called The Book of Lost Things, and it was a work of outright fantasy, a boy's rites-of-passage journey through a fantastical world in order to pick up the pieces of his own shattered life. It was a remarkable achievement, moving Connolly's work onto a new level, and it seems to have had liberating consequences for the books that have followed. Where occasionally in the Maine novels there had been the risk of the supernatural overwhelming the actual, of claustrophobia (The Black Angel sometimes read as if it were channeling Hieronymus Bosch), last year's The Unquiet held the disparate elements of Connolly's fictional universe in a new balance while sacrificing none of the previous intensity: confident, stylish and moving, it was by some distance the best of the Parker series.
That sense of greater harmony and assuredness carries through to The Reapers, a supernatural western set among an elite cadre of samurai-style contract killers and the most purely entertaining novel Connolly has written. The Reapers centres around Angel and Louis, Parker's murderous sidekicks, and the plot has a classical simplicity: Angel and Louis find their lives under threat from men acting for Arthur Leehagen, who seeks revenge for the murder of his son; Leehagen's rival in love and in business, Nicholas Hoyle, hires them to kill Leehagen; Leehagen lives near a deserted former mining town in isolated, open country; a team of assassins is assembled to mount the attack; when they're almost on top of the Leehagen place, Angel and Louis realise that a trap has been sprung, and that their team are being picked off one by one, and that the man on their trail is a Reaper with his own deadly grudge against Louis. The call goes out for reinforcements, the Detective (as Charlie Parker is called here) steps up to help his friends, and the stage is set for a showdown.
But in The Reapers, the men with guns do not get it all their own way. Much of the narrative is told from the point of view of a tenant of Louis's called Willie Brew, a sixty year-old mechanic and Vietnam veteran who never killed anyone but who gets reluctantly drawn into the climactic action alongside the Detective. Brew is a splendid creation in his own right, an ornery, fundamentally decent man, seen to amusing effect riffing Hope and Crosby style with his business partner and unlikely friend Arno; he also enables us to see the bloody climax plain, providing a moral counterpoint to the glamorous allure of violence.
Equally enthralling are the flashbacks to Louis's youth: to the racist America of sundown towns, where a black man was not welcome after nightfall, where a black man who broke the window of a white bar was lynched and burned alive, where Louis killed for the first time to avenge his mother's death, and was marked out and groomed for the grim fate that awaited him. Together they form a poignant backstory that supplies invaluable psychological and social underpinning for this utterly compelling tale of mystery and imagination.
by Benjamin Black
The art to giving a good speech, we are told, is to have a very strong beginning and a very strong ending, and to ensure that the interval between the two is as brief as possible. John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, seems to have taken this advice and applied it to his new novella, The Lemur, which indeed has a beginning and an ending but a marked lack of what writers and readers alike call "a middle." As a result, despite its brevityit runs to little more than twenty thousand words or sothere are stretches during which nothing much of any kind happens, at length. Ostensibly set in a present day New York by Dominick Dunne out of Vanity Fair, it all seems to unfold in a strange overheated nineteen fifties dreamworld, like a post-war HM Tennent drawing room drama, replete with doting mothers and closeted sons, where tightly wound characters reprove each other in brittle tones for their use of slang:
'How was the trip?'
'Hideous, as usual.'
'Billuns came out by chopper. You could have come with him.'
'For god's sake, Louise. The "chopper"!'
The plot is straightforward: Dylan Riley, the lemur of the title, is hired by John Glass, a burnt-out Irish journalist unhappily married to Louise, the daughter of the legendary ex-CIA man and communications mogul Big Bill Mulholland, to assist him in writing Mulholland's biography. Riley soon turns up dead, shot through the eye. Did Riley stumble on a dark secret from Mullholland's past, perhaps to do with the alleged suicide of his former partner, Charles Varriker? Once established, the plot is referred to but not advanced until the end, when, thanks to an NYPD detective content to impersonate a bumbling village policeman, the way is left clear for Glass to tie things up.
The Lemur was originally serialised in the New York Times, and if you didn't know that the Times insists on seeing the complete work before printing the first installment, you'd wonder whether it had been written episodically and published here without re-reading. The problems centre chiefly on the mysterious Mr. Glass. We are told Glass was a famous foreign correspondent who sent "passionately fashioned jeremiads" from Tiananmen Square, Rwanda and Srebenica; he was published by the Guardian, Rolling Stone and the New York Review. Now, it appears, he is reduced to flacking for his filthy rich inlaws in order to sustain his parasitical Central Park West and Hamptons lifestyle.
But it's difficult to reconcile that Glass with the acutely self-conscious fellow through whose compulsively fastidious eyes we view the story. This Glass "has an instinctive dislike of people who wore t-shirts with smart things written on them." He seems to be unsure of the precise function of computers, and later to be unaware of the development of the laptop, even though he has one resting on his desk. He "did not possess even a mobile phone." "He secretly hated telephones, because they frightened him." This legendary journalist, whose work everyone has been reading for years, can't keep clear in his mind the distinction between MI5 and MI6; when the cops haul him in for questioning, he thinks the police captain has the face of an El Greco martyr; his only standard of comparison for the kind of busy police station he must have been in a thousand times is camp cinematic: 'Glass idly entertained the fancy that if it were viewed from above, all this apparently random toing and froing would resolve into a series of patterns, forming and re-forming, as in a Busby Berkeley musical."
Between the unreliable narrator and the copy editor falls the shadow. A third of the way in and you ask yourself what on earth is going on. Is this is all some kind of post-modern joke, a satire on character consistency? Is the name John Glass significant? Is he transparently the author? He is certainly (forgive me) a pain. Then you read the following: "He was thinking in a dreamy vacancy... how (his mistress) Alison's shapely back recalled Man Ray's photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse posing as a violin." And once you've stopped laughing, the penny drops. We know who John Glass is now. He's a character in a John Banville novel. This is not Banville writing as Black, this is Black writing as Banville, and John Glass is that familiar figure: Banville Man. Banville Man, furrowed brow wreathed in smoke, forever caught between a swoon and a sneer; Banville Man, the rumpled aesthete whose exquisite nerves are ever besieged by the crass and the vulgar ('For God's sake, Louise. The "chopper"!'); Banville Man, whose loathing of the hell that is other people is surpassed only by his loathing of himself. And in the dessicated murk of a John Banville novel, where no one expects much by way of character or action, where a bogus backstory is the least you might imagine a man to have, that's all par for the course. John Glass's misfortune is to find himself in a Benjamin Black tale, where we have the right to demand of him a) that he be a plausible, realistic character and b) that he actually do something. Instead he flounces about moaning and bickering and eating expensive meals and stepping out for cigarettes. Eventually he stumbles on the truth, but since, in the absence of any great distraction, we've had plenty of time to think along the way, we've probably beaten him to it.
MIND'S EYE TROUBLE
In an essay called 'Mind's Eye Trouble,' the great American humorist Robert Benchley confessed to a lack of visual imagination 'which amounts positively to a squint.' Benchley claimed he could only conjure up about eight stock scenes for any book he read, and no matter if the story took place in ancient Rome, mediaeval France or Victorian London, those scenes remained stubbornly located in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.
I first read that essay when I was about fifteenthe age Benchley concludes his mind's eye finally gave up recording new imagesand virtually clapped my hands in recognition, for when I was a child, the entire works of Enid Blyton had played themselves out along the stretch of coastline between Dalkey and Killiney railway stations, the beaches and caves harbouring any number of smugglers, robbers and circus runaways; William Brown and his Outlaws had tramped the Burmah Road and taken Jumble ratting in the forest by Killiney Hill; and, before New Zealand became the definitve landscape for The Lord of the Rings, hobbits and elves piled through the gorse above the cliff path and orcs lurked in dark pools at the base of Dalkey Quarry.
Later, the Californian noir fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald found, among the secluded mansions and seaside villas of Killiney Village and the Vico Road, settings every bit as plausible to me as the canyons and beach houses of Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. Thanks to its wooded hills and cliffsides and the architectural diversity of its houses, the same patch managed to impersonate both Mediterranean and Northern Europe, stood in for the mythical county of Loamshire, where most English fiction and drama used to take place, and provided the perfect location for all things Gothic.
Of course, there were limitsno-one, even with so determinedly parochial a visual imagination as mine, even among the teeming pavements and traffic-logged streets of Dun Laoghaire, could find much that conjured up New York or Paris. But hell, you need an excuse to go somewhere, and New York and Paris are pretty good places to need to go.
Benchley called his condition mind's eye trouble, but maybe the trouble lay with Worcester, Massachussetts. For as long as I can remember, my mind's eye has been trained on the four or so supernaturally beautiful square miles between Dun Laoghaire Harbour and Killiney Strand. Writing is always a troublesome business, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar, or a writer, but of that trouble, my mind's eye has been the least of it.
(Written for "Bloomin' Lit"Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council Writers' Exhibition)
There's an old story about the man whose wife catches him in bed with another woman. The guy leaps out of bed in shock and screams, "it isn't me!" And the thing of it is, you sort of know what he means. Which is more than you can say of Bill Clinton's touching belief that oral sex does not constitute adultery, ("eatin' isn't cheatin'", as some wag put it). The president's swingin' behaviour seems to have come straight from the pages of Playboy, so it seemed like an opportune time to leaf through a few men's style magazines and see what kind of kind of spell they'll cast over any embryo Clintons out there.
Liam Gallagher is on the cover of this month's GQ. Inside, there's a heard-it-all-before story on a washed-up seventies footballer (Malcolm Macdonald), an inconsequential article on stock car racing, an I-threw-up-so-they-threw-me-out-of-the-brothel piece on Bombay and a pictorial entitled "The Ad Birds of 1998", featuring a lot of girls off the telly with not a lot on. Elsewhere, GQ explains how to have phone sex, tells you what not to say to your "mates" and has a style feature on anoraks. GQ stands for "Gentleman's Quarterly."
Esquire features a cover girl, Denise Van Outen, who presents Channel 4's "Big Breakfast" programme. Her boyfriend, Andy Miller, who plays guitar in a band called Dodgy, assures us that Essex girl Denise, 23, farts more than anyone he's ever known, information I could quite contentedly have lived without. There's a centrefold pullout of the flatulent blonde in a leopard skin dress. Esquire carries better features: good pieces on Burt Reynolds, Lennox Lewis and IRA informer Martin McGartland; but the tone throughout is relentlessly tabloid: February's is a special Hard Issue, so there's 30 ways to tell if you're hard, the 50 hardest things in the world and, inevitably, a piece on what to buy when what should get hard stays soft (A vacuum penis pump, apparently).
Esquire's not actually as dumb as it tries to pretend, but why is it pretending in the first place?
After all, when Arnold Gingrich helped found it in 1933, he set his sights a little higher. Hemingway, Ring Lardner and John Dos Passos were early contributors, Tennessee Willaims and Truman Capote followed, and the magazine's commitment to the growth and serious appreciation of jazz as an art form was exemplary. A special All Jazz issue in 1958 featured one of the most extraordinary photographs of the century, when many of the greatest musicians of the day, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie among them, gathered in Harlem for a group portrait at Esquire's behest. From celebrating great musicians to ogling half-dressed birds off the telly is a pretty sorry decline by any standards.
But perhaps this is to take it all a bit too seriously. I mean, let's not be prim here. Boys will be boys and all that. They're just glossy magazines, aren't they, there to advertise luxury products and serve as fantasy material for spotty young clerks in cheap suits? Well, no, actually. Not at their best. Granted, boys will be boys, and I've no objection to half-dressed women, but when you look at GQ's picture of Stephanie Seymour in thigh boots and a pout, all you think is: If I'd wanted porn, I'd've bought some. And since I didn't, could you get her out of my face, please?
What is a men's style magazine at its best? I'd suggest that Arena magazine during the late eighties and early nineties came pretty close. But to understand why, you have to go back to the glory days of the New Musical Express.
In the late Seventies, the NME told you what to think and how to behave. And it was a relief, quite frankly, when you were sixteen and clueless, and your parents were prehistoric and your peer group was prehensile, it was a relief to have impossibly cool magazine friends like Tony Parsons, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie Burchill, friends who introduced you to sex and drugs and rock and roll, who sneered at your errors of taste and your half-baked opinions, and who urged you constantly to better yourself: listen to better music, wear better clothes, read better books. They weren't very nice, these new friends of yours, but that was okay: at sixteen, you didn't set much store by "nice." Most importantly, perhaps, they took feminism for granted: any man who thought otherwise was a macho idiot. Nick Logan edited that golden-age NME, then moved to unisex syle bible The Face, and then, flush with that success, founded Arena. Arena was like classic Esquire crossed with the NME: a magazine for younger men who had hitherto only defined themselves in negatives: they weren't sexist, they weren't racist, they weren't power-crazed, testosterone-soaked rugby club blockheads. But they certainly weren't New Men either. (The problem with the all-caring, all-sharing, all washing-up New Man was that it had been an image created entirely by women. Sadly, the New Man had turned out to be a bit of an Old Lady, deeply unattractive to the opposite sex and ridiculous to his own.)
Arena's project, if that's not putting it too grandiloquently, (and it probably is), was to create an image men could recognise, identify with and emulate. The house style was hip, Retro-American, jazz based: immaculate suits, cocktails, classic cars, hard-boiled writers. Cover stars included Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, James Woods and Sean Penn. There was superior arts coverage, often championing unknown or neglected authors, and superb travel writing. Above all, there was ongoing, serious inquiry into the war between men and women. Nowhere else at that time were relationships discussed in a way that made sense to men. Yes it was just a magazine, and yes they did once put Robert Palmer on the cover, but still: for a few years, Arena wasn't just unfeasibly cool; it was almost important. And then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like: The New Lad.
Sean O'Hagan's original 1992 blueprint for the New Lad was essentially an encapsulation of all that Arena had been about: too masculine to be a New Man, too feminised to be an Old Fart, too confused by that insoluble conundrum, Woman; what the hell, let's have a drink and try again. But New Lad stuck around, drinking a bit too much until, in 1994, he re-emerged in Loaded (The Magazine For Men Who Should Know Better), transformed into Tabloid Man. Tabloid Man said: who cares about a bunch of dead jazz geezers? Who cares what women want? Let's go down the football, drink twelve pints, eat curry and watch porn. Cheers, mate! Everyone bought Loaded. Then everyone tried to copy it. Tabloid Man was all over T.V., Behaving Badly and Thinking It's All Over.
The launch editor of Loaded now edits GQ. That's why it's peurile, sub-adolescent garbage. The fact that British Esquire carries occasional articles from its American counterpart is the only reason it's not as bad. My love affair with Arena ended abruptly when a readers' poll accorded most favoured babe status to Pamela Anderson, thus implying that its entire readership, apart from me, was twelve years old.
Men's magazines are, I suppose, fundamentally ridiculous. Perhaps, deep down, biologically, so are men: nature's jokes, programmed to impregnate and then piss off. It's a bleak enough destiny, but on the bright side, one which can only be enhanced by a well-cut suit, a properly mixed cocktail and a Clifford Brown solo. And is there a girl in this picture? Of course. There's always a girl in the picturehaven't you ever been to the movies?
THIS JUST IN: Arena have introduced a new player in the sex wars. He's called Soft Lad, I think because he's in touch with his feelings. If not... well, I suppose he'd better buy a vacuum penis pump. After all, it'd be an awful waste to make it all the way to the White House, only to have nothing to do once you got there.
So you could dine a deux on Veal's Brains in a Walnut, Asparagus and Passion-fruit Coulis at that chi-chi new cafe everyone's been talking about, drink too much, flirt with the wait-persons and have a screaming row on the Quays at three in the morning after breaking a heel, losing a lens and not finding a taxi. This is the 'Valentine's Day as New Year's Eve' option.
Or you could collect about you some like-minded singletons and, united in your justified disdain for Hallmark Holidays, fling drink upon drink down your fixedly-grinning maws until your tear ducts finally cut loose and set you adrift on a pool of maudlin self-pity. This is the 'Valentine's Day as Sad and Bitter Table at Wedding Reception' option.
Or you could stay home, pour two dry martinis, watch an old screwball comedy and laugh until you pass out. This, as far as I'm concerned, is the most favoured option. Because what is Valentine's Day for if not to pose the age-old question: why don't they make them like that any more?
The tale of the Hollywood producer who, when faced with a romantic comedy script, barks: 'When do they fuck?' may provide one answer. The contemporary insistence on inserting scenes of simulated sex into films betrays a complete ignorance of how romantic comedy works. The thrill is in the chase, after all. Sex is the destination of a comedy. It should only ever happen off-screen, as the end credits roll.
The great screwball comedies that flourished in Hollywood's golden agefilms like Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Storyhad little choice in the matter. They laboured under the notorious 1934 Production Code Of Ethics, (The Hays Code), forbidding explicit, or even implicit treatment of matters sexual. Thus, the makers of what Andrew Sarris called 'sex comedies without the sex' were obliged to slip it in surreptitiously, so to speak: through witty, bickering banter, or out-and-out violence. The one sure way to measure a screwball couple's affection is to gauge the intensity of their fights: if it's all-out war, it must be love.
As an opponent of all forms of censorship I find myself uncomfortable with the notion that repression can bring artistic benefits; as a writer, however, it makes perfect sense. After all, how do you write a sex scene in a drama? What instructions could a writer give actors about pretending to have sex with each other? And why should we bother, when you look at the end result and think: they know they're not, and we know they're not, so could they just not?
When the trick is to convey sexual attraction through dialogue, on the other hand, particularly dialogue between two people who appear to loathe each other, then the writing has to be good. And when it's as good as Robert Riskin's for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, or Dudley Nichols' for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Preston Sturges' for Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, you have the basis for some of the funniest, sexiest, most romantic comedies of the century.
And if I could have a Valentine, it would be Claudette Colbert in Midnight, which I've never seen, and which is unavailable on tape, and which was written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Just don't forget the martinis.
There were no great expressions of surprise at the recent poll that found men only read half a book every five years or so, and then only if their wives or girlfriends bought it for them and forced them to read it on pain of withdrawal of essential services or some such. Meanwhile, women read all the books, especially the ones you'd think they wouldn't, like gory and sadistic accounts of serial killers, which are often written by women in the first place. Women even read the books men claim to read but don't, like those biographies of sports and business figures you buy for your Uncle Tony or your father-in-law at Christmas.
I must say I was taken aback, and a little dismayed, at the findings. It's not exactly a secret that women read more than men, but still, I expected men would hold their own in the non-fiction stakes. I recalled all those men I had met over the years, practical, no-nonsense types who announced that they had "no time" for "sitting around" reading fiction, that they "couldn't see the point of it" since it was "all made up." I had assumed that at least they were all piling into Stalingrad or The Good, The Bad and the Rugby. I didn't want to believe I was wrong. I thought of a survey I read a few years ago which found that extremely strong filter coffee was better for heart disease than tea, despite the significantly higher levels of caffiene it possessed. On the face of it this seemed extraordinary. Was caffiene good for the heart after all? Was medical science bunk? And then I noticed that the survey had been conducted in Glasgow and all became clear. In less favoured parts of that city, male life expectancy is lower than it is in Iraq. A diet rich in fried and sugary foods combines with heavy smoking and serious drinking to present serious health problems among the working class and unemployed. And what do they drink? Tea. And what do the middle classes drink? The End.
I had briefly hoped some similar cluelessness might be identified to undermine the new poll. Perhaps the sample had been conducted on board a coach ferrying heavily refreshed alickadoos from Croke Park back to the security of their D4 fastness, or during a coffee break at an IBEC confererence.
But there I go, taking a pop at easy targets. If a poll had found women falling behind in some respect compared to men, the standing army of female pundits would mobilise to defend their sisters, and quite right too. When men are portrayed as a bunch of useless moochers who can't be bothered even to read books specifically targetted at them, other men shrug their shoulders and move on. We are indifferent to each other, it seems.
Obviously, as a writer, I'm one of the men who do read. Most of the men I know read. It appears we're a statistical blip, that we exist within the margin of error. But while I don't share the equanimity of men who don't read (there's no evidence that they miss it) I think I understand it.
Because there was a time when I was that soldier. I read voraciously from the age of five. The library was my second home. By ten or eleven, I had graduated from Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit to Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe. And then I simply stopped. Maybe I ran out of suitable reading materialthere was no "young adult" category then. I know it came after a period when I was badly bullied at school, so maybe books suddenly lost their allure when I realised they could not cure all my ills. Whatever the cause, a couple of years passed during which I read nothing but football comics, album covers and stereo catalogues.
I know it was also a time I spent almost exclusively in male company, a time when male friends were more important than anything I could find in a book. What the lads thought was all that counted.
And then a few things happened all at once. Girls appeared, and instantly outstripped the lads in my esteem (a position they've retained). My tormentor vanished. And someone gave me a book to read.
When I say that my elder sister, no doubt irritated by my incipient tendency towards mooching and fiddling (the default leisure habits of the non-reading male: they even made a game out of them, called golf) presented me with a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in an attempt to get me to sit still, and that my life altered as a result, I am manipulating the truth for dramatic effect. It is, nonetheless, the truth.
For the majority of men, I guess what the lads think will always be more important than anything they could find in a book. Maybe they didn't have a sister. Maybe they're right. Safety in numbers. Meanwhile, out here at the margin of error, we'll continue to send up flares in the hope of attracting the waverers, the dreamers, the bored and disaffected and curious, all those whose best idea of truth is to be found within the pages of a book that's all made up.
In the introduction to his translation of The Life Of Galileo, Howard Brenton says that, just as Milton's purpose in Paradise Lost was to justify the ways of God to Man, so Brecht's project was to justify the ways of Communism to Men and Women. (Does that sound like a night in the theatre or what?) William Blake exposed the futility of this type of authorial intention years before: "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it." In other words, and despite the best attempts of the egregious Brecht Estate, pedantic, literal minded critics (Willets, Esslin, Bentley) and sundry academics from the University Of Missing The Point Completely, Brecht survives as a true playwright, and of the theatre's party, (although all too frequently, without the audience knowing it).
Brecht's theoretical writing should be ignored. Nothing a playwright says about his own work is of much value anyway; even stage directions are dubious. If you can't work the play out from what the characters are saying to each other, there's something wrong, either with you or with the play. It would be good to see Brecht on our large stages again, but only in the best kind of revival: the one that shows no respect whatever for the author's intentions.
ON NOT REWRITING TARTUFFE
It happens all the time in the movie business. The title reads: "Written by Dick Pen and Jane Ink." And you fondly imagine Dick and Jane as writing partners, cooking up the scenes over steaming pots of coffee, batting snappy one-liners back and forth across a smoke-filled office. And once in a while, it actually happens that way. Comden and Green, say, or the Epstein brothers. More often though, Dick and Jane have never met. They've never even spoken on the phone. Dick has written the first few drafts of the screenplay, and various producers and development people have said things like "The character arc is unclear," and "What if he was 48 and she was 22?" and "The third act doesn't work," and eventually either Dick Pen gets fed up and walks or the producers get fed up and fire him and they send the script to Jane Ink. And Jane's job is to identify the problems as she sees them (The lead character is too passive; What if she was 48 and he was 22?; The third act doesn't work) and then write a draft which solves them. And sooner or later it's still in development, that is to say, nothing happens (as it does a lot in the film business), or the movie gets made and some smart aleck tells you that actually Robert Towne wrote the big forgiveness speech for the father and William Goldman got the third act to work; and the third act still doesn't work and who cares who wrote some stupid movie anyway?
This does not happen all the time in the theatre business. In the theatre business, there is something called The Classical Repertoire. If you work in the movie business, The Classical Repertoire is a bunch of old plays whose plots can be robbed because not alone are the guys who wrote them dead, they don't even have agents. If you work in the theatre business but do not depend upon it to pay your bills, The Classical Repertoire represents all that is sacred and sublime in dramatic literature, a canon of plays waiting, like symphonies, for skilled interpreters to give them definitive performances. If the theatre business is your principal source of income... symptoms: nausea, vomiting, temporary insanity, blindness and death... sorry, that's drinking wood alcohol... where was I? Oh yes. If you make your living almost entirely from the theatre, GOOD LUCK!
Oh God. We'll try this one last time, shall we? If you rely on the theatre to feed, clothe and shelter yourself and your family, and you've found yourself involved with a "straight" production of, say, one of the Shakespeare plays that (whisper it) Don't Actually Work (Timon, Titus, some of the "comedies"), or a pointless revival of a Restoration Gem That Isn't Funny Any More, you may have a more ambivalent attitude to some of the jewels in the theatre's glittering crown. There are diamonds, and then there's paste, and very often, the third act doesn't work.
A few years ago, Lynne Parker asked me to take a look at Love and a Bottle, the first play by Derry-born late-Restoration playwright George Farquhar, with a view to adapting it. At least, we started off calling it an adaptation, but what I soon realised needed to be done was what Jane Ink did to Dick Penthe play would have to be completely rewritten.
I was admittedly a little uneasy about the dubious precedents for what I proposed. The sentimental Augustans and Victorians who gave King Lear a happy ending did not make you feel you were working in a glorious tradition. But two things were clear: the play had Many Good Things in it, and it was completely unstageable in its present form.
All restoration plays are about sex and money; George Farquhar's Love And A Bottle combined them in the form of George Roebuck, an impecunious Irish rake cutting a sexual swathe through London society. My first step was to take this piece of transparent wish-fulfillment on the part of its twenty year-old creator and make it the fantasy projection of tyro playwright George Lyrick, (follow those Christian names), an incidental figure in the original.
This gave me a play-within-a-play device (although one critic concluded that Farquhar had anticipated Pirandello by a good two hundred years) that kept the structure from getting too unwieldy. I changed certain characters completely, cut and rewrote extensively and transformed the conventional comic ending into an anarchic confrontation in which Roebuck out-Juans Don, and drives Lyrick, his creator, to despair. All the while I tried to stay true to the spirit of Farquhar's intentions, believing that that spirit would be best honoured by getting the play to work. Happily, that time, for most people, it seemed to.
When Ben Barnes asked me to think about a version of Moliere's Tartuffe, my first thought was that I certainly wouldn't be doing what I did with Love and a Bottle. After all, Tartuffe had been getting along perfectly well for over three hundred years without any help from me. The play is undoubtedly one of the finest jewels in the classical repertoire's glittering crown, and my job, as I understood it, would be to enable it to shine.
That word "enable" is crucial. Any time you tackle a classic, you're trying to find a way to enable the play to take place. When you're dealing with a work in translation, the first decisions to be made are about language and period.
Moliere's verse is generally rendered into rhymed iambic pentameter. This can work brilliantly, but I find an entire evening of rhyming couplets a little unsettling, so I decided to let all the characters speak in unrhymed blank verseexcept for Tartuffe. Tartuffe's control over the head of the household into which he has insinuated himself is never quite explained, but it seemed to me that if his linguistic gifts were sufficiently flamboyant, it would go some way towards accounting for his mesmeric power.
Tartuffe is a comedy about religious hypocrisy, domestic fanaticism, sexual dysfunction, moral blindness and the corrupting power of the state. Somehow, Ireland in the early nineteen seventies sprang quickly to mind. The point was not to make Tartuffe "say something" about Ireland, but, by translating the action to a time that seemed appropriate, to enable Moliere's play to be seen afresh. This distinction is crucial: setting Macbeth in Italy in the nineteen thirties, say, is a good plan if the play is thereby illuminated; if however, the director's intention is to share with us his thoughts about the rise of fascism, it's just a waste of everyone's time.
Once this choice had been made, others inevitably followed: carriages became motor cars and Kings turned into Taoisigh. What was extraordinary to me was how little of substance had to be altered. The Royal Court Theatre used to say they treated classics like new plays and new plays like classics. Working on Tartuffe felt like working on a new play. It made me realise that Moliere is truly our contemporaryand that his third acts always work.
HUGHES: PLAYS ONEIntroduction
In 1992, a friend of mine took the editor of a men's style magazine to a performance of Digging For Fire at the Bush Theatre in London. At the interval, this career zeitgeist surfer turned to my friend and said, "I didn't think they had people like that in Ireland." Well now.
The experience of growing up in Dublin in the sixties and seventies was not unlike the experience of growing up in Manchester or Glasgow, or in Seattle for that matter. The cultural influences were the same: British and American TV, films and music. You read Irish literature, but mostly for the past; to discover the present, you looked to America. Irish writers flicked through the family album; American writers looked out the window. You knew you would go to America one day, to work, or for a holiday, or just to get the hell away from home, or maybe you lived in California or New York already, in your mind. You were People Like That, and if you felt your cultural identity dwindling into a nebulous blur, well, you believed that what you had in common with others was more important than what set you apart, and you knew there were millions like you all over the world, similarly anxious to be relieved of the burdens of nationality and of history. You were tired of hearing about those who didn't learn from history being condemned to repeat it; you sometimes felt the opposite was true, that those who were obsessed by the past were doomed never to escape it, to replicate it endlessly, safe and numb within its deadly familiarity.
Digging For Fire is about the collapse of a marriage, and the disintegration of a group of friends. It's a bleakly optimistic comedy of manners that is as romantic as it is cynical. When Clare summons up the spirit to dance to True Faith at the end of the play, she is celebrating clarity over self-deception, uncertainty over security, the future over the past. This may be as good as it will ever get for Clare, but that doesn't mean she's wrong to dance.
New Morning has the shape and movement of a gospel songit's dark, it gets darker, but lookhere comes the dawn. I wrote it during a time when it seemed as if we had all suddenly been designated victims, and we were required to recover, to heal ourselves, to be cured. Tickets for the traditional religious journeysuffering, redemption, grace, eternitywere now on offer to the faithless. Eternity would now be available en route, rather than at journey's end.
There's a line in a Nick Cave song that goes:
'Who will be the witness when you're all too healed to see?'
New Morning asks whether we can achieve happiness without ignoring the true nature of the world. It begins with a storm, and ends with a dream.
Halloween Night and Digging For Fire are both plays about groups of friends: this is a genre that will increasingly come to replace the family drama, it seems to me, for obvious sociological reasons. The characters in Halloween Night are in some ways the characters in Digging For Fire, older, sadder and no wiser. They ask the same question New Morning asks: 'Why can't we be happy?'; the answer they get is: 'Because we are who we are, so we get in our own way.' They yearn for faith to be given to them, but they are imprisoned by their own faithlessness, by a past they are powerless to escape. In the face of cold, impartial oblivion, clarity is unbearable, uncertainty is dangerous, the future is a nightmare, and the only thing to 'celebrate' is that quotidian epiphany, the dawning of yet another day.
Any of the plays in this volume could be called Love And A Bottle, but it's probably convenient that only one of them is.
Lynne Parker suggested I take a look at George Farquhar's first play with a view to adapting it. What I ended up doing was effectively a complete rewrite.
All restoration plays are about sex and money; Love And A Bottle combines them in the form of George Roebuck, an impecunious Irish rake cutting a sexual swathe through London society. My first step was to take this piece of transparent wish-fulfillment on the part of its twenty year-old Derry born creator and make it the fantasy projection of tyro playwright George Lyrick, (follow those Christian names), an incidental figure in the original.
This gave me the play-within-a-play structure (although one critical genius concluded that Farquhar had anticipated Pirandello by a good two hundred years) and enabled me self-consciously to dramatise both George Lyrick's 'creation' of 'Love And A Bottle' and my re-writing of George Farquhar's Love And A Bottle.
I changed Trudge substantially and Leanthe completely, added as much cheap and vulgar material as I could muster, cut and rewrote extensively and transformed the conventional comic ending into an anarchic confrontation in which Roebuck out-Juans Don, and drives his creator to despair. Sometimes the best way to respect the author is to ignore his 'intentions' completely. While I'm here, I should say that I find the whole notion of the classical theatre thoroughly decadent; there should be a fifty year moratorium on all plays written before 1950, say. Only a few old plays are worth reviving; most should be rewritten. Museum culture is on the march, but it's not too late to stop theatre going the way of operayet.
Rough Magic Theatre Company produced all of these plays first time out; my thanks to Lynne Parker, Siobhan Bourke and all the casts and crews who worked on the shows.