Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

Often, intertextual inertia must give way to old promises and the making good thereof. In the case of Chester Himes, who I’d rescued from the clearance bin in Waterstone’s Cardiff before the summer, the paying of deserved respect was long overdue.
I have a very soft spot for genre fiction, particularly when the content is framed quite so elegantly as that of Chester Himes’ Harlem cycle. Apologists justifiably present him as the Black American literary complement to white contemporaries and genre luminaries Chandler and Hammett, and from a personal perspective, his marriage of svelte prose and acute observation is as pleasing on the eye as anything from either author or other renowned pulp novelists like John D MacDonald. To my mind, Himes is particularly tasty bubble-gum for the brain.
Of the verisimilitude of his characters I cannot comment. Harlem in the forties and fifties is as far removed from Cardiff in the ‘teens as I can possibly imagine (I sell myself short of course, but you get the picture) but I am reliably informed that Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are two astonishing but not unlikely examples of the contemporaneous Harlem police detective; the shoot first, question later (if at all) type, not averse to slapping a woman to the floor if rage or the situation dictates. Jackson, Himes’ erstwhile eponymous protagonist (the novel has been known by the title “The Five-Cornered Square”) is a wonderfully effete character, beguiled and bedevilled by con artist and contrary “high yeller woman” Immabelle, and subject to the whims of pretty much every hoodlum and racketeer in the district, including his own brother Goldy, a stool-pigeon and nun-impersonating hop-head.
Reading back through this review, I notice that my usual blend of mellifluous prose (You at the back! Stop that sniggering!) and slightly jaded and crumbly bitterness is oddly absent. I honestly don’t know why, but if you must press for an answer, I would reply that I can’t always be the joker, and that some subjects are worth serious consideration; admittedly, perhaps, not the stylized scribbling of a ex-con, but then I’m having one of those days where my sense of humour seems to have slid down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Indeed, I must even resort to Monty Python quotes for a cheap laugh. Still, you may benefit from a more studied and sober text, and so revision will be left to the social historians. Who will read this like a gospel of truth, of course.
There’s plenty of social commentary rumbling along beneath the overt racial tension and criminal violence, and like Chandler and Hammett, Himes’ style allows the reader to plug the gaps left for interpretation, engaging the faculties of his audience and making for a satisfying if quick read. If you’ve not dipped into crime fiction before, you could do worse that start at Chester Bomar Himes. A whole lot worse. But if you’re looking to broaden your understanding of modern Black American writing, I’d advise that you start with Ralph Ellison or Tony Morrison and go from there.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Having met Jon on several occasions, and having come away each time with the feeling that he was genuinely interested in what I had to say and felt moved by some sort of kinship to reveal titbits of personal information (like about how his brother is a bit of a [rude word here]), I have developed a distinct and comfortable fondness for him, his writing, his documentaries and even his film (or rather the film of his book). In retrospect, given that in every instance where we coincidentally arrived at the same point in space at around the same time was due to the fact that, as an erstwhile bookseller, I was there to sell his books for him, I worry that this bond was illusory, the easy self-deception facilitated by the fact that he was motivated by insecurity to be nice to the guy who, nominally, had the success or failure of the undertaking in his hands.

I’ve had a beer with him, a smoke with him, seen his “foot herpes” (I kid you not, but although I’m not a medical professional I suspect he was being melodramatic), attempted to placate him when the turnout was not quite as huge as we had hoped (I blame the weather on the night and city centre parking in Cardiff), and agreed that Victoria Coren was a fun gal, much like her brother (not that I’ve met Giles or Victoria, but still...). I made him write rude phrases on the title page of my copies of each of his books (my personal favourite is still “Suck me baby, yeah!”) and have religiously read every single one of them (Ahem. That is except for Out of the Ordinary and What I Do as they’re currently behind Robert Musil on the ‘To Read’ shelf and so will probably remain there for a little while until I pick up the courage to do The Man without Qualities). I like him. But am I a fool so to do?

The Man Without Qualities
The best (or worst?) of investigative journalism can take the familiar and represent it in a way that makes the reader question his or her passive acceptance of a subject, either judiciously stripping away cultural assumptions, Socrates-like, or wilfully misrepresenting it to force a reaction and get us to engage. Jon’s (or should I say “Ronson’s” - now I’ve questioned my own assumptions I cannot decide, so must stick with the status quo regardless) latest book, to which I am now mercifully coming, is, as always to me at least, a revelation of sorts. Erudite and self-deprecating, joyfully innocent and desperately jaded, I’m sure it will be a critical and financial success, as far as a book can be these days without a J.K. Rowling endorsement on the front. Indeed there is even room for a film adaptation – Tony, now of Bethlem (or Bedlam as it was known) would make an interesting cinematic study I’m sure. It’s impossible not to enjoy the way he writes, and I can almost hear his voice as I read, slightly anxious and mentally willing the explicitly funny bits (especially where it’s Jon who quips and jokes) to be recognised as such. It’s even quite possible that Jon has ticked both aforementioned boxes whilst digging the dirt on psychiatry and its opponents. But what is potentially and unfortunately a side effect of The Psychopath Test is that I now want to question his motives. Is that ingratiating manner of writing just manipulation? Is he exploiting my weaknesses? Does he want me to like what he writes (and subsequently him) so that I feel the need to give him money? Am I stupid enough to give it to him? [In this case, no, as I’m the proud owner of an advance reading proof copy. Huzzah for connections in the trade!] Did he ever really like me?

It seems an over-active amygdala might just be infectious.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Bash the Rich by Ian Bone

I cannot help but be endlessly fascinated by the stream of intertextual inertia that ensures I drift from one absorbing (or at least intriguing) book to the next, and so I’m very happy that the present stream has pushed the intellectual boat out deep into the random waters of non-fiction.

Remembering my course back up river, I get a little lost around the Idler (either issue number 42 [Smash the System – sounds likely] or 43 [Back to the Land] attractive in its new hard-cover cloth binding but unattractive in its Idler-off-putting new price bracket) and the article with Ray Jones, laughingly self-monikered with the double barrel insert “Roughler” and his pursuit of unemployed bliss. I think that perhaps my periodical infatuation with all things idle (due no doubt in part by the periodical nature of its publication) was the catalyst, perhaps the inception point, so the search may be in vain. Nonetheless it has seen me wend my way through the Ray Jones biography (review coming soon, I suspect), two Crass albums and Hartmann the Anarchist to Ian Bone and his cliff-hanging chronicle of Class War and rich-bashing, and this here review-type article, so it is.

Having had no wish to develop a class consciousness myself up to this point, I was concerned that, recommendations from the Gnome and The Idler urgings aside, I would be bored to chuffing tears by the middle aged rantings of a man the Sunday People once branded “the most dangerous man in Britain”, a tag he doesn’t shy away from repeating ad nauseum. Indeed, there is quite a bit of content that I am unabashed to admit I cared for not a toss. For example, I suspect I am missing quite a few references, cultural and historical, to properly anchor his narrative in my understanding. My knowledge of Italian anarchists is sadly lacking, and despite the helpful if black-and-white pointillist-style picture of Lucy Parsons (now deceased I understand) I am no closer to caring who she may or may not have been. And frankly, the whole Class War team appear to have some serious growing up to do. Of course, they won’t, as it would mean becoming a part of the system they aim to seriously inconvenience for a bit, and also stopping drinking Special Brew.

All of these serious impediments to understanding are not, however, a barrier to enjoyment. In fact, the speed at which Bone trots out the acronyms means one is able to skip past them without them registering (although I did double-take at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, one of the rare series of capital letters that I recognised) and means that the next bit of drunken disorder arrives all the faster; for indeed, that is the fun part. Drinking six quick pints before barracking the toffs and boater hat-wearing lah-di-dahs at Henley, punching coppers in the face, chucking cans and bottles at Neil Kinnock, joining the fun on the streets in Brixton, creating rude collages for the covers and contents of Class War, and annoying the vegan hippies and pacifist anarchists of Crass by repeated calls to swift and violent uprising – that is the meat in this tasty anarchist sandwich.

But what happens next? The book ends just as Class War looks like it might finally get a piece of Thatcher, and Bone’s bookend piece about his father’s surprising rebelliousness seems tacked-on (although the photo of father Bone with placard and shit-eating grin is excellent). Will there be a second instalment? I sort-of hope so.