Filed under: Literature | Tags: Blind Man with a Pistol, Chester Himes, Gee Williams, Isle of Mull, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, Salvage
I took the name of this blog from the title of Chester Himes’ 1969 police-procedural novel starring the inimitable detectives Coffin Ed Johnston and Grave Digger Jones. Himes himself provides the epigraph:
A friend of mine, Phil Lomax, told me this story about a blind man with a pistol shooting at a man who had slapped him on the subway train and killing an innocent bystander peacefully reading his newspaper across the aisle and I thought, damn right, sounds just like today’s news, riots in the ghettos, war in Vietnam, masochistic doings in the Middle East. And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.
Himes follows his preface with one of my favourite quotes of all time, a ‘foreword’ credited to ‘A Harlem intellectual’:
Motherfucking right. it’s confusing; it’s a gas, baby, you dig.
Last night, I attended the James Tait Black Literary Award ceremony, where I was cheering on the wonderful Gee Williams and her equally wonderful Salvage (unfortunately for Williams, the winner for fiction was Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt). I was lucky enough to speak with Williams and her husband, and they introduced me to another, delightful literary blind man and his sidearm.
In Chapter 15 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped our narrator-hero David Balfour is shipwrecked (surprise!) and washes up on the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland (forgive the extended passage, but I could not resist quoting at length):
In about half an hour of walk, I overtook a great, ragged man, moving pretty fast but feeling before him with a staff. He was quite blind, and told me he was a catechist, which should have put me at my ease. But his face went against me; it seemed dark and dangerous and secret; and presently, as we began to go on alongside, I saw the steel butt of a pistol sticking from under the flap of his coat-pocket. To carry such a thing meant a fine of fifteen pounds sterling upon a first offence, and transportation to the colonies upon a second. Nor could I quite see why a religious teacher should go armed, or what a blind man could be doing with a pistol.
I told him about my guide, for I was proud of what I had done, and my vanity for once got the heels of my prudence. At the mention of the five shillings he cried out so loud that I made up my mind I should say nothing of the other two, and was glad he could not see my blushes.
“Was it too much?” I asked, a little faltering.
“Too much!” cries he. “Why, I will guide you to Torosay myself for a dram of brandy. And give you the great pleasure of my company (me that is a man of some learning) in the bargain.”
I said I did not see how a blind man could be a guide; but at that he laughed aloud, and said his stick was eyes enough for an eagle.
“In the Isle of Mull, at least,” says he, “where I know every stone and heather-bush by mark of head. See, now,” he said, striking right and left, as if to make sure, “down there a burn is running; and at the head of it there stands a bit of a small hill with a stone cocked upon the top of that; and it’s hard at the foot of the hill, that the way runs by to Torosay; and the way here, being for droves, is plainly trodden, and will show grassy through the heather.”
I had to own he was right in every feature, and told my wonder.
“Ha!” says he, “that’s nothing. Would ye believe me now, that before the Act came out, and when there were weepons in this country, I could shoot? Ay, could I!” cries he, and then with a leer: “If ye had such a thing as a pistol here to try with, I would show ye how it’s done.”
I told him I had nothing of the sort, and gave him a wider berth. If he had known, his pistol stuck at that time quite plainly out of his pocket, and I could see the sun twinkle on the steel of the butt. But by the better luck for me, he knew nothing, thought all was covered, and lied on in the dark.
He then began to question me cunningly, where I came from, whether I was rich, whether I could change a five-shilling piece for him (which he declared he had that moment in his sporran), and all the time he kept edging up to me and I avoiding him. We were now upon a sort of green cattle-track which crossed the hills towards Torosay, and we kept changing sides upon that like ancers in a reel. I had so plainly the upper-hand that my spirits rose, and indeed I took a pleasure in this game of blindman’s buff; but the catechist grew angrier and angrier, and at last began to swear in Gaelic and to strike for my legs with his staff.
Then I told him that, sure enough, I had a pistol in my pocket as well as he, and if he did not strike across the hill due south I would even blow his brains out.
He became at once very polite, and after trying to soften me for some time, but quite in vain, he cursed me once more in Gaelic and took himself off. I watched him striding along, through bog and brier, tapping with his stick, until he turned the end of a hill and disappeared in the next hollow. Then I struck on again for Torosay, much better pleased to be alone than to travel with that man of learning. This was an unlucky day; and these two, of whom I had just rid myself, one after the other, were the two worst men I met with in the Highlands.
At Torosay, on the Sound of Mull and looking over to the mainland of Morven, there was an inn with an innkeeper, who was a Maclean, it appeared, of a very high family; for to keep an inn is thought even more genteel in the Highlands than it is with us, perhaps as partaking of hospitality, or perhaps because the trade is idle and drunken. He spoke good English, and finding me to be something of a scholar, tried me first in French, where he easily beat me, and then in the Latin, in which I don’t know which of us did best. This pleasant rivalry put us at once upon friendly terms; and I sat up and drank punch with him (or to be more correct, sat up and watched him drink it), until he was so tipsy that he wept upon my shoulder.
I tried him, as if by accident, with a sight of Alan’s button; but it was plain he had never seen or heard of it. Indeed, he bore some grudge against the family and friends of Ardshiel, and before he was drunk he read me a lampoon, in very good Latin, but with a very ill meaning, which he had made in elegiac verses upon a person of that house.
When I told him of my catechist, he shook his head, and said I was lucky to have got clear off. “That is a very dangerous man,” he said; “Duncan Mackiegh is his name; he can shoot by the ear at several yards, and has been often accused of highway robberies, and once of murder.”
“The cream of it is,” says I, “that he called himself a catechist.”
“And why should he not?” says he, “when that is what he is. It was Maclean of Duart gave it to him because he was blind. But perhaps it was a peety,” says my host, “for he is always on the road, going from one place to another to hear the young folk say their religion; and, doubtless, that is a great temptation to the poor man.”
So far, this blog finds itself between acts of random, ludicrous violence and blind catechists packing heat. I’d say that’s pretty good company.
Filed under: Literature | Tags: Alcemi, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Gee Williams, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Mohsin Hamid, Salvage, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Our Horses in Egypt, Rosalind Belben
The Devil’s Footprints, John Burnside
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
A Far Country, Daniel Mason
Salvage, Gee Williams
Special mention should go to Gee William’s Salvage, which is not only the solitary finalist by a first-time novelist, but is also the only novel not issued by a major publisher. Alcemi is a small, bilingual Welsh imprint from the independent publishing house Y Lolfa, and boasts only a handful of titles to its name. I read Williams’s book during the review process and hers was by far the best of the bunch. You can read my review of Salvage (as well as that of another finalist I reviewed, Mohsin Hamid’s excellent The Reluctant Fundamentalist) in the original post.
The prize, an impressive £10,000, will be awarded in August as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. See you there.
Filed under: Book Review, Literature | Tags: Amanda Eyre Ward, Book Review, Edinburgh, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edward Docx, Forgive Me, Gee Williams, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Lost Temple, Mary Gaitskill, Meet Me Under the Westway, Mohsin Hamid, Ronan Bennett, Salvage, Self Help, Stephen Thompson, Susanna Jones, The Missing Person’s Guide to Love, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Tom Harper, University of Edinburgh, Veronica, Zugzwang
I volunteered to read for the 2008 James Tait Black Memorial Literary Prize for fiction. It is a prize organized by the University of Edinburgh and will be awarded this August during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I received a stack of nine novels, and I decided that a fitting debut blog entry would be the reviews I submitted to the panel of judges to help them compile their short list. Beware: the quality of the submissions is unwieldy.
Ronan Bennett, Zugzwang. Bloomsbury, 2007
Zugzwang is a term used in chess commentary where a player remains obliged to move although all possible options weaken the current position. Bennett, chess commentator to The Guardian, writes a taut political thriller set during a 1914 chess tournament in St. Petersburg. Despite some onerous love scenes between the middle-aged protagonist and his lithe, young Baltic-beauty love interest, Bennett’s prose is energetic and lean while he builds and sustains suspense throughout the narrative. One of the most skilled writers of my stable, Bennett was a pleasure to read, and almost made my short list. Unfortunately, he falls short of the medal round because while Zugzwang excels in the thriller genre, it fails to transcend it. Tight, fun and exciting, but not really prize material.
Tom Harper, Lost Temple. Century, 2007.
What could the publisher have possibly been thinking when they submitted this book for a literary award? Harper’s novel, the first book I read in my set, was awful. Awful. The words “high-octane!” and “non-stop action!” come to mind, along with any hackneyed chestnuts you might see flashed wildly across the trailer of the latest Vin Diesel offering. Sam Grant kills Nazis, Soviets and Palestinian terrorists in a plot so confused, it’s not sure if it’s stealing from The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones or The Illiad. About halfway through, I decided to start looking for a sentence that exemplified the horribly trite prose, when eventually realized that every page offered a new and wonderful candidate. How bad is Lost Temple? I think that Tom Harper answers it best on the website, replete with YouTube teaser, that he concocted to promote this book. YouTube? Cripes.
Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamish Hamilton, 2007.
A wonderful addition to my pile, this late entry redeemed a particularly poor stack of books. Hamid concocts an allegory of America’s relationship to its historical legacy, its national myths, global capitalism and the distasteful conflicts the intersection of those social forces have wrought. A suspenseful itch begins harmlessly and almost unnoticeably with the title and the unnamed Pakistani narrator that has sat down beside an American tourist to cheerfully tell him about his life in the United States. The itch spreads with ghostly insistence, as the narrative subtly unwinds the social netting that form the Western conception of the East-West divide. The beast of fundamentalist terrorism that frenzies Western thinking bursts into an expertly derived conclusion even as it lingers on a hopeful reconciliation. My only criticism of the book touches the difficult form of the oral allegory employed by the novel. The narrator’s love interest, remains bizarre, one-dimensional and unconvincing—and her allegorical name, (Am)Erica, is perhaps a bit too precious. Overall, an excellent book, and deserving of progression to the next round.
Edward Docx, Self Help. Picador, 2007.
Edward Docx is a witty, inventive writer and Self Help provides an energetic stage for him to flex his artistic muscles. The book examines the lives of an estranged bicultural family, Russian and English, fast upon the death of their loving though brooding (Marxist!) matriarch. Various narrative strands following twin brother and sister, separated bisexual dandy father, and unknown orphan from a previous affair intertwine along the lines of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Unfortunately, Docx staggers under the weight of his ambition, and 500-page text never really gets off the ground. Moreover, while Smith’s effort revels in its breadth of vision and diversity, Self Help remains firmly planted in white, middle-class navel gazing. Docx’s strong writing and occasional wit rescues the novel somewhat, but his stretch for clever metaphor sometimes shows the strain. Ambitious, but ultimately uninteresting.
Mary Gaitskill, Veronica. Pantheon, 2005.
Gaitskill’s evident talent distinguished her and her novel from the also-rans in my list. Veronica investigates the complex, lurid friendship of the dead title-character and our narrator, Alison, an ex-glamour model now full of self-loathing, regret, and Hepatitis B. Gaitskill beautifully illustrates the weaknesses and hopes that invite debasement, pettiness and failure. As we follow Alison as she revisits her past in an assortment of vignettes about her teenage flight from home, humiliation and success in the modeling industry, and a homecoming to a life of unrewarding temp work—a world where she meets the theatrical Veronica, full of affectation and chutzpah, who both confronts and reassures the illusions around which Alison has structured her life. Veronica’s death by AIDS equally offers hope and hopelessness, meaning and rage to Alison’s own terminal illness. Gaitskill allegedly dreamed up Alison and Veronica over a decade ago; and therein dwells my only criticism of this otherwise provocative and insightful novel. The novel’s preoccupation with the emotional vacuity of the 1980s and generation-specific attention to AIDS and STDs are notably behind the times. Veronica’s datedness—and the fact that the book was originally published in 2005—could disqualify it from the Tait Black 2007 prize, but these issues do not eclipse its force and pleasure.
Susanna Jones, The Missing Person’s Guide to Love. Picador, 2007.
I don’t really have much to say about this novel, even though it was less disagreeable than Harper’s Lost Temple. It was rather like an American soap opera, especially if the soap opera likes to draw on colonialist, orientalist assumptions of exotic Turkey. The writing is strong and fluid, if forgettable, the characterization plastic, and the plot was derivative, although a bit punchier than most homecoming thrillers that seek to uncover a horrible, far-reaching secret. But, like the soap, you find yourself on the couch at three o’clock in the afternoon and the remote is just sitting there, almost within reach. Why not read another page? Pap.
Stephen Thompson, Meet Me Under the Westway. CHROMA, 2007.
Thompson’s cleverness sometimes gives the impression of someone who laughs too hard at jokes about David Mamet. Westway is funny, surely, and a confident, satirical romp through the British theatre scene and Notting Hill, but his eye is too focused on the approving nod after a successful name drop or literary allusion than the actual comedy of his quips. Indeed, this strategy proceeds apace in the trendy, West London setting, where every Portobello restaurant, bar, pottery and piggery is referenced with barely concealed self-satisfaction, even as he smugly eschews their falsity and superficiality. Thompson operates too much in lockstep with Nick Hornby’s less-talented cousin, and occasionally confuses pomp and profundity like a drunk swaggering on moonshine he mistook for Macallan. A decent effort, but certainly not prize-worthy.
Amanda Eyre Ward, Forgive Me. Harper, 2007.
Forgive Me depicts a young hardnosed, no-nonsense journalist struggling with an unfulfilling home life in Nantucket and her desire to uncover truth and meaning that apparently manifests itself through African apartheid. It’s exactly the kind of reductionist move you would expect from such a simplistic, moralizing fable that represents Western women as universally cowed and ignorant and black South African women as determined warriors. Apartheid South Africa essentially stands in for white existential angst. Nevertheless, Ward’s prose is excellent, and is appropriately economical considering the protagonist’s vocation. There is real emotional conflict in the book, even if it sometimes belittles the real trauma of apartheid. Most disappointingly, Ward chooses to wrap up the conflict and the novel by becoming a mother and moving home to Massachusetts. In the world of Forgive Me, having a baby can erase the pain of racism, poverty, war and heartbreak. Unfortunate.
Gee Williams, Salvage. Alcemi, 2007.
The jewel. A masterful stylist, Williams is constantly inventive and inspiring in her craft, and boasts a knack for stunning images and observations. Where has Wales been hiding this woman? Well, in Wales, presumably, but that is besides the point. Salvage masquerades as a murder mystery while exploring the murky, aphotic character of the Welsh seaside and of the human soul. Dominant and daring in her prose, Williams relishes the act of writing and constructs five distinct characters with genres particular to each, including a wonderful Cosmo send-up for the gorgeous gold-digging nurse as well as a provocative intervention of the author herself. Clichés and generic conventions only provide more writerly ammunition, as Williams constantly shifts her literary goalposts from crime to romance to a metafictional crisis while never losing the immediacy of the characters or the suspense of the crime. If Gee Williams was a more celebrated author she could win this competition. Brilliant.