Sunday, January 09, 2005

Book Review Compendium: Volume Two

Johnny Rotten once famously advised us to 'never trust a hippy' but instead of using these simple four words, TC Boyle takes 400+ pages of purple prose to pretty much come to the same conclusion in Drop City. Nevertheless, Uncut made it their #1 book of 2003, and it's not hard to see why as Boyle writes his sentences with meticulous care, wit and the apparent authority of knowing the early 70s period intimately. The book follows the travails of a hippy commune which needs to up sticks from sunny California after one too many run-ins with the local authorities and seeks to reinvent itself in the harsher environment of Alaska with predictably bleak results.

Boyle seems to be clearly aiming for a wider allegorical statement in terms of the futility of striving for egalitarian 'community' in the face of human frailty (greed; selfishness; laziness and a subconscious drive towards heirarchical structure) and the laws of Mother Nature. It's a kind of Animal Farm complete with quaaludes and pubic lice, then, in which Boyle is revealed as less of a catastrophist and more of a good old-fashioned moralist in which the entropy he details is ultimately karmic in nature. The book is a dense, rewarding read but not without flaws - the minor female characters seem almost interchangeable; there's a couple too many scenes of implied jeopardy that lead nowhere (giving it the occasional flavour of a penny dreadful) and it's about 100 pages too long for the limited story arc. In summary: A narrow 1-0 victory for writing style over content.

If TC Boyle's hippies have problems, the toils of the title character in Steven Sherrill's debut The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break put them into some sort of historical perspective. Known as M for short, he carries the burden of barely-remembered sins from his past as well as a bull's head on his shoulders in this unusual depiction of what it's like to be lonely and horny in trailerpark America. Doomed to immortality, we find the minotaur near-emasculated by guilt and a desire for love and community he cannot articulate due to pretty much everything he tries to say coming out in grunts or laboured platitudes. Keeping his head down as a short-order cook is easier said than done, as his natural clumsiness and intimidating horns always get in the way, but can the new waitress Kelly, herself something of an outsider following a public epileptic fit, provide an unlikely respite from his eternal suffering or will the Minotaur's animal instincts prove a beastly nuisance too far?

Part realism and part mythological bull, Sherrill's book is an unlikely crowdpleaser in the way he accurately details the routines and ever-decreasing circles of habitual negative thinking that can envelop single, lonely people and yet still offers the glimpse of opportunity for respite for his half-human half-bovine martyr (and therefore, by extension, the rest of us inarticulate, emotionally-constipated, self-defeating beings). I'd have preferred some deeper investigation into the Minotaur's mythological history, but Sherrill seems more concerned with driving the narrative to its conclusion and the result is an extremely likeable book that I would recommend to anybody with even the slightest introvert bone in their body.

And finally, there's two more Nicholas Royle books that I've caught up with recently. After reading 'Antwerp' and then 'The Director's Cut' earlier this year, I'm currently going through his oeuvre in reverse order, continuing with The Matter Of The Heart in which a gloriously bloody and primitive heart transplant experiment in the Victorian era has some pretty dire consequences for present-day staff working in the same building. About halfway through the book, the majority of the main characters take a trip to Australia whereupon the long, dusty outback journey may bugger up your suspension of disbelief as the plot takes a sharp hand-brake turn into different territory (psychologically as well as geographically). If you can take the leap of faith the plot logic requires at this point, though, it provides a pretty exciting climax, helped by the fact that, in the beautiful cardiologist Joanna, Royle has written his most believable and sympathetic female character to date. The usual Royle obsessions of cinema, milieu and identity are again to the fore, and this book is also to be recommended for anyone with a serious Mercedes fetish, as indicated by the figure-8 headlights that adorn the cover.

Saxophone Dreams is a little more difficult to get hold of, but I managed to obtain a battered, yellowing copy for about 1p + postage from Amazon Marketplace. The time and trouble proved ultimately worth it, although I found the first half of the book heavier going than normal as Royle attempts to weave together several different narratives across different continents. Complicating things further, the book also has something of the (fellow Mancunian novelist Jeff) Noon about it, as jazz buffs and musicians across a rapidly changing Europe find themselves transported by a haunting tune into a (hallucinatory?) co-existence as an extended metaphor for the way music/culture can help people cross (the visible and invisible) boundaries to a shared sense of purpose.

If that sounds a bit dry and heavy, then occasionally the first half of the book is, but once Royle gets his characters where he wants them, he unleashes the zombies that represent that other side-effect of an abruptly liberated Eastern Europe: cultural dispossession and the thrall of nascent consumerism. All hell is then let loose as the book hurtles towards its conclusion in a breathless, crazed and ridiculously entertaining fashion. A dense, difficult and ambitious work at times then, perhaps not the best Royle book to start on, but worth persevering with, and given that it was first published in 1996, very much prescient in the way it deals with now-vogueish themes such as the impact of a 'liberated' Eastern Europe; black-market organ transplants, the Balkan sex trade and, of course, the living dead, in an unusual, imaginative and ultimately successful fashion. Worthy of a reprint and wider reappraisal, methinks.


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