Friday, December 09, 2016


THE GENERALIST is pleased to present the latest crop of novels that I have digested in recent months. They all come recommended. The majority are second-hand books, found at random, enjoyable surprises - none more so than this great 1973 Quarto paperback edition of Jack Kerouac's first novel 'The Town And The City' with a great cover artwork by Ron Kirby.

As regular readers will know I am huge fan of The Beats in general and JK in particular but for some reason had never tackled this novel before, first published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the US in 1950. Heavily influenced by the American writer Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac's debut novel is a sprawling 500pp family saga and is loosely based on his real life in two locations - Lowell, Massachusetts and New York, where the Beats first found each other. The majority of the book's characters are based on his family and friends.

A hugely ambitious book, he started it in 1945 and produced a 1,100 page manuscript by 1948 at the age of 26. Like his character Pete Martin, Kerouac joined the merchant marine and sailed to Greenland.
Official Navy mugshot of Kerouac
around the time of his 21st birthday.

The early chapters are idyllic and brought to life with tremendous skill. The blurb writer of this edition puts it well: 'The unique voice of Kerouac's panoramic consciousness reverberates through these pages, questioning, wondering and clarifying.' The happy family life in an iconic small town is torn apart by the World War and the old sureties are shredded, reflecting Kerouac's own pathway. It's an emotional journey and one that prefigures the string of Beat novels Kerouac is famous for. The novel concludes with his alter ego alone on a highway in a rainy night: ' He was on the road again, travelling the continent westward, going off to further and further years, alone by the waters of life, alone, looking towards the lights of the river's cape, towards tapers, burning warmly in the towns, looking down along the shore to remembrance of the dearness if his father and of all life.,'  Perfect.

Three great reads by writers new to me. Arturo Pérez-Reverte  was a war correspondent for 20 years before becoming a best-selling novelist. 'The Queen of the South' is a rattling yarn about the rise to power of Teresa Mendoza, who escapes the Mexican cartels to become a godmother of the drug trade in the Mediterranean. APR obviously loved hanging out with the helicopter pilots of the Customs and the book is made real by his assiduous journalistic skills.

'Shantaram' by Gregory David Roberts is a 1,000pp gripping saga based on the author's true-life adventures. In the 1980s, Roberts was a heroin addict who became an armed robber. He escaped from a high security Australian prison and found his way to Mumbai where he lived in the giant shanty towns featured in 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Here he established a free-health clinic and  became a street soldier for the mafia. He also got involved with Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. 

According to Wikipedia: 'In 1990, Roberts was captured in Frankfurt after being caught smuggling heroin into the country. He was extradited to Australia and served a further six years in prison, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. According to Roberts, he escaped prison again during that time, but relented and smuggled himself back into jail. His intention was to serve the rest of his sentence to give himself the chance to be reunited with his family. During his second stay in Australian prison, he began writing Shantaram. The manuscript was destroyed by prison wardens, twice, while Roberts was writing it.'

The book is a conflation of his real-life adventures and invented narratives. He's a wonderful and absorbing story-teller and this book is a great if you just want to shut off from the world for a week. 
I'm saving his equally large follow-up novel 'The Mountain Shadow' for just such an occasion.

Joseph Kanon's 'Istanbul Passage' is a masterclass spy novel set in the immediate postwar period of the late '40s, in a world of uncertainty and intrigue.Le Carré and a few others may have staked out a claim to this territory but Kanon can match their narrative skills, character building and intricate plotting. The story twists and turns as the book's main character American businessman Leon Bauer tries to keep his cool and hold on to his integrity whilst evading secret police and indulging in an illicit sexual affair. All of this plays out against a finely-realised backdrop of one the world's most enchanting cities. One can almost hear the chants of the muezzins and the waters of the Bosphorus lapping against yet another washed-up corpse.

Having been a William Gibson reader since the cyberspace days, having interviewed the man on several occasions, a new WG book is always worth investigating. Which is not to say they're always easy reading.                                                                                                                               'The Peripheral' I found strangely baffling on many levels but when I tried not to understand it all, I enjoyed the experience. The back blurb claims that the book is set in a pre-Apocalyptic America and a curiously empty Post-Apocalyptic London. There's a lot of levels, lots of newtech. A worthy addition to the Gibson oeuvre.
The author of a string of unusual novels, Michael Faber's imagination had not strayed into interstellar space before 'The Book of Strange New Things'. Peter, a kind of chaplain, is sent up to some far off space base owned by some corporation [like in 'Moon']. Pete's job is to liaise with the planet's indigenous inhabitants - Oasans - who love Jesus and live in a special settlement not too far from the base but far enough to require a long drive in some kind of shuttle. He is also trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend/wife who he will not see for many years. Things are not going well back on Earth. MF magic's up this whole deep-space world in 3-D.  Your imagination can fill in lots of the details. Haunting and other-worldly. I felt I was there.

THE GENERALIST loves American paperbacks and these two Cormac McCarthy novels are just about as good as it gets, design-wise. Eleven out of 10 for look and feel. Good readable type.
I began my journey into McCarthy's work via the three-volume Border trilogy 'All The Pretty Horses', 'The Crossing', 'Cities of the Plain' followed by 'No Country For Old Men' and 'The Road'. Now I'm working backwards.
This cover of 'Blood Meridian' carries the mother of all cover quotes. from one of my favourite writers Michael Herr [See PP]:
"A classic American novel of regeneration through violence. McCarthy can only be compared with our greatest writers, with Melville and Faulkner and this is his masterpiece."
What can I say: It's another of Cormac's long, long journeys by a dark nightmare crew riding across vast landscapes, each marked by bad encounters that generally involve  slaying everyone in sight. There's little but violence or horrifying fights for survival. It's riveting. I'm saving 'Suttree' for later.
I've written about the Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago before somewhere (see PP) You have to get used to him. For a start, there are no chapters or paragraphs, just one whole scroll of continuous text. In other words, you need a bookmark. Saramago has a strange, unique and somewhat dark imagination. 'Seeing' is, to my mind, very contemporary for the following reason. The plot is reasonably simple. In this imaginative real-life country, the population are allowed to vote on National Election Day. On this particular occasion, only a small handful of voters arrive to vote. An extension is announced. When they look at the final ballot papers, 70% of them are blank. The government calls for another election. The blank votes rise to 83%. The plot develops from there.

I have a particular love of certain kinds of mystery stories and 'The Prophecies', a novel by Chief Druid Philip Carr-Gomm hits middle stump. 

I like stories that begin with someone looking for inspiration who decides to go to Paris, browses the booksellers by the Seine and finds an unusual book by a woman who turns out to have been a clairvoyant and to have predicted many aspects of the Second World War. 

Not knowing whether she was still alive, C-G (for it is he) discovers that her home in Brittany is now a B&B, swiftly makes a booking, takes the train to Rennes, hires a car, finds the house and learns that he is to sleep in a room called the 'Chambre des Druides' The next day, he also discovers that this magnetic female spiritualist took a German lover during the war. She was also a friend of the Abbé Gillard who, also during the war, began building a church of the Holy Grail in the nearby village.

From these actual factual beginnings, C-G crafts a story that interweaves fact and fancy and which grabbed my imagination. I sat down and read it straight through in the course of a day. I loved the original b&w 1970s tv version of 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' which inspired 'The Da Vinci Code'. 'The Prophecies' has a similar presence,

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