Fiction & Biography

ADVENTURE MEMOIR ROBERT SABBAG Smokescreen (Canongate $216.99) 000

If only there could have been a scene in Robert Sabbag’s new book where the suave, sharp-suited Zachary Swan (the subject of Snowblind, his first brilliant foray into drug- smuggling reportage) met up with Smokescreen’s pothead bandit Allen Long.

It would have been a fascinating meeting: old versus young, coke versus grass, the cynicism of exquisitely-executed smuggling versus the over-earnest desire for adventure in the name of counter culture. It would have been a clash that totally underlines the weakness of this new tale of biplanes and stinking bales.

Swan had a certain sophistication but Long constantly comes across as a failed musician in denim cut-offs with a need to decanter his adrenaline into border-busting dope-running. From this distance, it’s difficult to care. However instrumental Long and his intrepid men were of supplying North America with the finest Colombian Green, this may all be too familiar for those who have read Howard Marks’ Mr Nice.

In 1966, the seventeen-year—old Long and some of his drop-out muso mates are busted by an over-aged undercover detective in a pg" .1" bad Beatles wig. While the other two boys’ parents intervene on their behalf, Long’s folks were less freewheeling: ‘The parents understanding of such things was that their son was injecting marijuana into a brachial vein, and thought that jail was what he needed’.

Having developed a grudge for the legal system and an understandable anger at his father for his white picket fence cowardice, Long slowly develops a taste for smuggling. First on small runs into Mexico with a flamboyant drug casualty called El Coyote and then onto more prestigious ventures deep in the forests of South America with a talented team of pilots and fences.

Smokescreen runs the whole gamut of the highs and lows of dealing in pre-Escobar-cartel Columbia with the inevitable downturn of capture and (usually) short-term imprisonment. The arrest comes, more often than not, for crimes of tax evasion with tacked-on drug charges.

This is a valiant if overly-familiar story, and Sabbag is such a gifted writer he spikes and teases his text to make it ridiculously readable while retaining that beat,





a true adventure

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A weak tale of biplanes and stinking bales

slangy edge which marks him out from many of the less-gifted journalists of his generation. The trouble here, is that even an author so fundamentally good at his craft cannot breathe life into this story of hash- dealing desperados.

Perhaps it’s not all Sabbag’s fault; Long’s tale just may not be interesting enough to sustain a book this length. The main problem is the essential nature of Long’s trade. However much the many subsidiary characters hop themselves up on ‘ludes, coke and the finest bush known to humanity, the story of fresh-faced, public school types living out Robin Hood fantasies has all the shortlived appeal of a boom. (Paul Dale)

LUKE SUTHERLAND Sweetmeat (Doubleday £9.99; .0.

Auiimujhuww. on NW

Feel the subtext 94 THE LIST 3t Jan—14 Feb 200?

Luke Sutherland certainly likes to stretch himself. His efforts With 1998 debut novel Jelly Roll were rewarded with a Whitbread First Book nomination and possible future fame With a proposed moVie of his story. With whatever time he has left to himself. he utilises it to get lost in mUSlC. sometimes helping out his mates in Mogwai. often deing his own thing for Bows. And almost always very well.

But in his literature. that stretching threatens to split his art to shreds. TO the relatively attentive reader. Jelly Roll may have seemed to be a highly- charged emotional tumble across the fields of music. racism and Violence. courtesy of the misadventures of a touring ia/x hand.

Sutherland himself declared the novel to be a modern day retelling of Dante's Inferno and the Seven Sins. It was certainly a clever conceit and made wonderful sense when you glared close enough. But for many.

this was a layer too far. detectable to only the most astutely esoteric literary eye.

So. With Sweetmeat. yOu can't help but look out for the glittering metaphors and totemic myths all overladen with grand significance and a path to understanding. And some clues may be there With snakes in gardens or in the rapturous delight taken in debating food. beauty and honour. And then there are the character names. hinting at subtext galore: Morrissey. Faulkner, Roosevelt. Legion. Worm.

For the rest of us. the stOry of a London restaurant's head chef in love with his soon-to-be-M-3d boss and eventually being haunted by someone else's past is a fairly engrossing, well- written, but largely sparse tale, rarely visited by stark tension or high drama. Maybe a down-si/ing of vaulting ambition Will give Luke Sutherland the bigger success his raw talent deserves. (Brian Donaldson)

Shelf life

Classic novels revisited. This issue: Lanark

Published 20 years ago. What’s the story Alasdair Gray's rich. brilliant Life In 4 Books almost defies synopsis. The novel begins with book three. Our hero Lanark lives in the dreary. futuristic city of Unthank, but has no notion of how he arrived there. where his friends came from or even who he is. After contracting ‘dragonhide'. the eponymous hero finds himself in an institute where he is told the sad tale of Duncan Thaw. the boy Lanark used to be. from his miserable childhood in Glasgow to his coming-of-age as an artist.

What the critics said ‘A shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom . . . Alasdair Gray is the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott,‘ raved Anthony Burgess.

Key moment In a novel about the way we create and reinvent ourselves. Gray gleefully blurs the line between reality and fiction. At one point. Duncan Thaw says: 'I want to write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake.' unwittingly descnbing the epic in which he is starring.

Postscript Lanark was famously developed by Gray on and off for nearly 25 years until its eventual publication by the then fledgling Edinburgh publishing house. Canongate. A version of what became chapter twelve of the novel was actually runner-up in an Observer short stOry competition in 1958.

First line test ‘The Elite Cafe was entered by a staircase from the foyer of a cinema. A landing two thirds of the way up had a door into the cinema itself, but people going to the Elite climbed farther and came to a large dingy-looking room full of chairs and low coffee tables.‘ (Allan Radcliffe)