Nightmare Alley

October 19, 2019

nightmarealley_02I read “Nightmare Alley“, published in 1946 by William Lindsay Gresham.  It was marvelous.

The novel tells the story of Stan Carlisle who, after a disturbing youth, joins a cheap travelling carnival, and starts to make his way in that world.  He becomes a mentalist, running a fixed game to get cash from vulnerable punters.  Eventually, Carlisle becomes a full-blown spiritualist, holding rigged seances, looking for the big mark, and running roughshod over his wife/partner and his few lovers. Finally, morbidly alcoholic and cheated by his erstwhile partners, a penniless Stan returns to a low-life carnival, offered a job as the geek — the wild man who bites heads off chickens — a humiliating position that he has detested since the first pages of the novel.

Gresham writes the story in a stark modernist style and manages to bring us deep into the worlds of the travelling carnival and spiritualism in the first half of the last century.   This is not the magical realism of Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love“.  Rather, this is a story of hard-scrabble life, poverty, drunkenness, and the vagaries of “love” in a world where everyone is a mark, everyone is a potential step out of the mud.

A tough and wonderful read.



Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery

October 15, 2019

ECOLike millions of others in the 1980s, I read The Name of the Rose, and I later followed it up with Foucault’s Pendulum in about 1990.  But I haven’t read another novel by Umberto Eco since then.  Therefore, I was excited to pick up Prague Cemetery and devour it. Unfortunately, I don’t believe I digested it well.

Prague Cemetery tells the story of a rather despicable man, Simone Simonini, and his place in a history that ranges from Garibaldi’s campaigns in Sicily and Naples in the 1860s, through the Paris Commune in the 1870s, to the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s.  In fact, as I was somewhat less than surprised to learn later, Simonini is the only fictional character in the entire book — all of the major players and most of the lesser ones are entirely historical.

Simonini is a forger and a vicious anti-Semite, working for various Secret Services, although it is still not entirely clear to me whether he believed the dastardly material he wrote about the Jews, or whether this was just another way for him to make a living within the context of his times.  Among the numerous important historical documents that Simonini is purported to have forged, are the bordereau that convicted Dreyfus and, most significantly, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion which would later influence Hitler’s Final Solution and various Russian pogroms.

One of the conceits of the book is that Simonini starts writing a detailed memoir/diary in the late 1890s as a result of meeting with an obscure Austrian doctor who, he thinks, is called Froide, and who has persuaded him that writing down his history will alleviate some phsycological problems he is having.  A second conceit is that, for much of the book, we are not aware of whether Simonini is writing as himself or an alter ego called Father Dalla Picolla who, it seems, enters Simonini’s apartments at night and adds his own comments to the diary/memoir.

The book is thoroughly infused with late 19th century Continental fascinations such as Masonic lodges, anti-clericalism, mesmerism, food, and of course anti-semitism.  The research that Eco has performed is stunning in its detail. The language is often sublime and there were times when I was certain I was back with my beloved Nabokov. However, by the end, the insistent intrusion of so much historical incident takes away from the novel qua novel, in my opinion, and I was rather glad to reach the end of it.

Roger Farr at People’s Co-op Bookstore

October 12, 2019

Next Wednesday, 16th October, at 7:30pm Roger Farr will be launching his new book at People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial Drive.  As per their flyer:

“It ain’t no Lonely Planet guidebook.  Roger Farr‘s I Am a City Still But Soon I Shan’t Be … The nine-part, book-length travelogue takes the reader through the streets of Vancouver, New York, Berlin, Siracusa, and Nanaimo, exploring the sites of capitalism’s domination of the urban subject. It’s Farr’s first book since IKMQ (2012), a finalist for the Dorothy LIvesay Prize, and should help allay the concerns, of some, that what he writes isn’t really poetry at all.”

As always, this is a free event and everyone is welcome.

Boyles Blistered

October 11, 2019


Sometime in the 1990s, I read “Water Music” by T. Coraghessan Boyle.

This is a mind-stretching, boisterous, epic, bawdy and violent fictionalization of the life of African explorer Mungo Park who, having “discovered” the Niger River for the white man and become a national hero in the process, was killed, along with the remnants of his party, near the end of his second expedition in 1806.

More, Park’s story is intertwined with an equally mind-stretching, boisterous, epic, bawdy and violent fictionalization of the life of a London derelict and crook, Ned Rise, who, in the book’s own sweet time, would be a member of Park’s second expedition.

The book is written in a rollicking tone and seems comic if one can put aside the seemingly endless degradations and violence these two men have to put with up. I thought it was wonderful and couldn’t wait to read more.

I have a habit of binge-reading a particular author that I like, reading all of their books in sequence.  I did that with Boyle.  By the time I caught up with him he had written perhaps a half-dozen novels and several books of short stories.  I read them all, one after the other, back to back.  And I never found another thing by Boyle that I really cared for.  Terrible disappointment.  “Road to Wellville” was OK (and certainly a much better book than the movie they made of it), but only OK, I thought.

Once I’d caught up with his publications I read one or two more as they came out.  But then I couldn’t do it any more.  That was perhaps two decades ago.

So, a few weeks ago, I picked up the old copy of “Water Music” and read it again.  Just finished it; it was hard going at times.  I still enjoyed it, still think it is worth the read; but it can be a hard slog sometimes.  In this novel he writes about fascinating things, places, people, ideas with passion and verve.  But there is just so much of it, the constant disappointments, the constant torment and complaints.  Damned hard work for a leisure activity!

Michael Tregebov at People’s Co-op

October 2, 2019

East Vancouver’s homegrown progressive publisher, New Star Books, is hosting a reading and meet and greet next week with author Michael Tregebov:

“Our own, modern day, Jewish-Canadian Balzac will honour the West Coast with his presence at the end of the week. Michael Tregebov, pen and skates in hand, hand to his chest, his voice loaned to the CBC for three shows and counting (Weekend Morning, The Next Chapter, and Here & Now), will be in Vancouver to spiel and schmooze about his third and newest novel, Shot Rock: the tale of Blackie Timmerman and his curled and curling troubles.”

The event takes place on Tuesday, 8th October at 7:00pm at People’s Coop Bookstore, 1391 Commercial Drive.

“Expect shtick, curling sticks, and Trotskyite (-ist?) undertones. As well as sundry copies of his novel, available to purchase.”

So You Want To Be A Novelist

September 30, 2019

It is said that we each have a novel in us, or at least we like to think we do.  And I am sure most of us dream of the New York Times bestseller list and the money and fame that will flow from that success.  Well, don’t hold your breath.

In An Agent Explains The Ins and Outs of Book Deals at Electric Lit Kate McKean demystifies the mysterious world of the advance and other esoterica of the book deal.

“the total advance depends on so many things, including the quality of the work, the sales potential of the work (not the same thing!), the author’s platform and/or previous sales, the zeitgeist, the “market,” how many  other editors are interested (if any), how similar books have performed for the publisher and/or other publishers, and many, many other things. Because there are so many factors, there’s no “average” book advance. $1,000 is rare. $1,000,000 is also rare.”

This is well worth the read for anyone contemplating their first novel.

Adrian Mole: Sociology In The Raw

September 17, 2019

I have just finished reading the entire Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. These eight hugely funny books purport to be Adrian’s diaries and correspondence beginning when he is a 13 3/4 year old schoolboy and ending as he reaches forty, a disappointed failure.

This is neither high art nor great literature but is a work of sustained comic genius, following the life of a wannabe literary intellectual against a period of British history that encompasses both Thatcher’s Falkland’s War in the early 1980s, the emergence of Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s, and the involvement of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s.  While Mole’s thoughts often involve these larger issues, his actual life is lived within the bitter constraints of Tory (and Labour) austerity and the growing inequalities that those policies generated.

He fails at all sorts of jobs (celebrity chef, author, environmental welfare officer, bookseller), grossly fails at consumerism, and invariably gets the wrong girls pregnant.  Moreover, his family is the oddest collection of characters since the Gormenghast dynasty, even though their reality is drawn so well that many of us will recognize individuals of the types involved.

I suspect that future historians may use the Mole series to better understand the sociology of England in these decades.  In fact, the humour is so interwoven with the intimacies of daily life in the Midlands I wonder whether anyone outside of England (not even, perhaps, the other parts of Britain) will fully grasp the subtleties of the comedy.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the entire series, I would recommend either Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years or Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.