FICTION UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE
I Stripping Penguins Bare Michael Carson (Victor Gollancz £13.95) There is more to Aberystwyth than meets the eye of Martin Benson. unlikely hero of Michael Carson‘s Stripping Penguins Bare. With a ‘girlish’ ﬂeshy bottom which belies the tight. muscular set ofcheeks which grace the front cover. Benson‘s puckered countenance is hardly the stuffofwhich heroes are made.
Disgraced and ejected from his religious seminary. Benson alights on the road to self-discovery. finding himselfat once freed from the moral grasp of the Catholic church. and like a lost lamb whose rear end is in constant danger from the baying wolves. Feeling uneasy. not with his sexuality, but his seeming inability to realise it in the existentialist wasteland that is Aberystwyth University. Benson assumes saintly status as Vice President of the Overseas Students Society. Immersed in an imaginary world of multi-cultural disharmony. Bob Dylan and Plato. Benson is tugged in all directions. finding none so magnetic as the corridor to the men‘s shower room and the mammoth dimensions of Enoch Mohammed, his wanton African ‘charge'.
Stripping Penguins Bare is a strange concoction of the cutesy and the graphically funny. in which to know Benson is to know that his butt is more ﬂeshy than his soul. As the agony of adolescence is laid bare. the perfume ofdark seduction mingles with sweetness and light. leaving the aftertaste of a Roald Dahl nursery rhyme. (Kathleen Morgan)
I Chromos Felipe Alfau (Viking £13.99) The remarkable thing about ('hromos is that it was written in the 40s. and remained unpublished until now. because it was judged to be so far ahead ofits time. At last. it seems. its time has come. and with last year's publication of his only other novel. Locos. Alfau is being praised as an important writer in the tradition of Nabokov. Calvino and Flann ()‘Bricn.
Indeed. (‘hromos is similar to ()‘Brien's work in its complex novel-within-a-novel structure. The unnamed narrator allows us snippets of his friend (iarcia's own novel. selecting the ‘good bits‘ and skipping what he considers to be mundane or pornographic sections. This technique allows implicit criticism of Garcia‘s novel. which he describes as ’reprehensible‘. while at the same time narrating enough to grip the reader‘s imagination. This results in an enthralling literary disorder. or entropy (one ofAlfau‘s favourite words), which successfully sustains dillerent narrative strands.
The narrator comments: ‘In order
72 The fist January — 7 February l99l
James on James
James Baldwin’s life was the stuff of biographers’ dreams: born into near-barefoot poverty in Harlem, struggling against endemic racism, but fired by talent, serving a picturesque (to the reader at least) penniless apprenticeship in Greenwich Village bars and run-down Left Bank hotels before ascending to literary stard:m. Baldwin, however, was canny en ugh to exploit the heroic in his situatibn for all itwas worth.
James Campbell, author of a new biography of Baldwin, enjoyed a personal friendship with the American writer, but this does not blind him to his subject’s often liberal way with the truth. ‘He mythologised his own life,’ says Campbell. ‘It became not just the story of a young man growing up and triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds, but something greater, like a story from fiction or legend. He wasn’t necessarily aware of doing it, that was just how he saw himself. The way he talked of his relationship with Martin Luther King was typical. He would say, “Yeah, Martin and me, we tramped all overthe South together”, when in fact, I worked out. in the eleven years they knew each
other they met maybe once a year.’
The biography combines a detailed and thorough lactual account, including new material on the vast file on Baldwin compiled by the FBI, with a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between Baldwin’s work and his life. It acknowledges the enduring power of classic essays such as The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son, novels such as Go Tell It on The Mountain and Another Country, while analysing the reasons iorthe decline oi his lame. It is a very American tale: talent and hard
rather it is illuminated in brief flashes
l i work rewarded by success, only iorthe ' effects of success to corrode the talent. ‘In some ways Baldwin was undone by his own generosity,’ says Campbell. “He was someone of abundant gifts, but he was also the boy who couldn't say no. Once he became famous, there were just too many demands on his time, he found it increasingly difficult to make space for writing.‘
Campbell is not a ‘natural’ writer, though he is clearly a hard-working one. His prose is often rather laboured, the style somewhat clumsy. Baldwin's famously charismatic and engaging personality fails to shine through;
by a particular incident or quotation. Also, although Campbell does not hide Baldwin’s faults — he was vain, sell-obsessed, insecure, chronically unreliable, a notorious bad debtorwho constantly drank to excess— he seems a little over-anxious to explain away this less endearing side. A more unapologetically warts-and-all portrait of Baldwin might have brought the ‘real’ man a little closer. Nevertheless, this is an honest, thorough account of an often underrated writer, providing a sometimes penetrating insight into 20th century American life. (Sue Wilson)
Talking At The Gates: A Life of James Baldwin is published by Faber at £14.99.
to preserve the sequence of Garcia‘s stories. I have sacrificed my own. It is a good excuse anyway.‘ Alfau needs no excuse: ( ‘hromos is a novel of major importance which deserves critical and popular acclaim. (Richard Goslan)
I Bannock Ian McCiinness (Polygon £7.95) For at least two reasons. it would be unfair to compare Bannock with the worksof Kafka. First. it is much funnier: second. its prose is much less turgid. But the exasperated alienation experienced by its central character George Weems in the face of petty bureaucracy and social conspiracy carries irresistible reminders of poor Joseph K.
()n one level. Mc(iinness‘ second novel (his first was Inner ( 'ity) is an engaging satire on the complacent narrow-mindedness ofScottish small-town society. Bannock is an isolated community in the borders. to which the city-bred Weems retreats on being abandoned by his wife. Taking employment in a bank. he is assailed by the oppressive warmth of the locals. who are possessed ofan unquestioning collective identity. steeped in absurd historical anecdotes and meaningless traditional celebrations.
The bewildered. self-pitying Weems is temporarily adopted by Stan Kowalik. a Bannock-born Pole. both an outsider and a confirmed member ofthe community. Through their relationship. Mc(iinness
explores broader questions of belonging. conforming and maintaining individuality within society. Following a sheltered upbringing. Weems has entered a blinkered marriage: this having been shattered. he finds himselffor the first time oppressed by the jovial womb of Bannock. and then by the ﬂawed friendship of Kowalik. From its beginnings as a dark comedy of parochialism. the novel progresses towards its ontological conclusion with admirable confidence. The narrative’s culmination at a sabotaged civic festival disappoints. but overall this is an intelligent and entertaining read. (Andrew Burnet)
HAMMER HOUSE OF HAM
I Renegades Shaun llutson (MacDonald £12.95) A diabolic demon from the bowels of hell glares satanically from a centuries-old stained glass window, a relic from the black church of(iilles de Rais. a 15th century nobleman of nasty character. That's the pre~requisitc unearthly. unfathomable horror angle. Add a dash of ‘renegade‘ [RA psychos. one coke-sniffing. gun-running. immortality-seeking millionaire. a smattering of obsessive historians. and a dose of tough-but-unfaircounter-terrorists uuuauuand. . . cue horror novel! Shaun llutson writes rocky horror books. ie the kind that mixes quotes from Nietzsche and ()ueensryche and that are decidedly dodgy when it comes to that ultimate fright factor.
While Renegades may aim to tantalise the fear-no-evil veteran with talk of ‘the gamut of perversion‘ (ooh. saucyl). ’a violent bloodbath’ (ooh. cripesl). and when ‘thc final I confrontation' (ta-raaah! ) comes ‘the living will envy the dead‘ (aaaargh! ). in fact the readers will be I doing the envying. wishing they had had the sense to leave Hutson on the shelf.
This is a big boys' fantasy world heavy on dum dum shells. Skorpion machine pistols. (ilascr safety slugs removing half a man's face. bits of brains spattering walls. and a woman who gets offon a mutilated car crash victim baby. The actual demon horror content is subsumed in a frenzy of bullet-ridden death. and all that's left is a bastardized , Jack Higgins plot and plenty of macho. penis-rubbing gulf. ((‘raig ‘ McLean)
INTO THE CLOSET
I High! and LefiJoseph Roth ((‘hatto and Windus .£ 1 3.99) Rig/z! and [.eji‘s leitmotiv comes some chapters into the first part of the book: ‘f’assion and belief are tangled in the hearts and minds of men. and there is no such thing as psychological consistency.’ Thus Berliner brothers Paul and Theodor compromise their ‘beliefs‘ at every turn in favour of their passion for money and status. For Paul. this means dropping pacifism and intellectual pursuits for militarism and social-climbing. For Theodor. it means keeping the lid on his Fascism when he gets a job on a