Friday, 28 September 2012

A Review of JUDAS PIG by Horace Silver

I don’t think I have ever read a book which contains such a constant, rising flood of expletive-laden anger. Its ‘f’ words and its ‘c’ words are embedded in almost every snatch of dialogue and in pretty well every line of gangster Billy Abrahams’ narrative. Your granny won’t like it, I’m certain of that. And it’s not just the language she’ll reject. Where, she’ll ask, is the remotest sign of decency in the people on show here?

There is scarcely a redeeming feature in any of the characters in this ultra-violent tale of London’s East End mob. There is no-one for whom you’re going to feel any warmth: scarcely anyone for whom you’ll feel the slightest grain of sympathy.

This is a grim story peopled with cruel, vicious, unfeeling men and women. They drink to excess, they sniff up ‘lines’ to excess, they kill to excess. And only Billy, brighter than the others, with sharper insight, fleetingly wonders where it’s all leading but even he can shuffle off his doubts if the money is right.

So where are the gangsters with hearts of gold? Where are the guys on the wrong side of the law with some faint memory of loyalty and friendship. Where are the loveable hard men? Don’t look for them here. Not in Judas Pig.

Is this then what they are really like, the lawbreakers?  Well, Horace Silver, the author, was for many years a senior member of a major London firm. So he ought to know. Now he’s given up the gun, the knife, the baseball bat, for the life of a writer. But his portrayal of gangsterdom is light years away from the cosy images of real criminals which we have been offered so generously in recent years. And I fear that this is what many of our gangsters really must be like. But they give to charity, don’t they?  And aren’t they loved in the East End? Yes, on both counts, Billy Abrahams tells us. And that’s because those who adore these low-life hard men are suckers just like the rest of us poor nine-to-five punters. They wouldn’t feel the same if they hadn’t been led to believe the creepy, romantic Robin Hood version of duplicitous lives steeped in squalid, venomous dealings. 

Grim reading, expressed with a crude power, at times poetic almost, yet always down among the dregs, and probably nearer the truth than most of the fact or fiction gangsters we’ve been regaled with over the years.

I loved it.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Review of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

It must be my age. I keep coming back to books I read so long ago. This time I’ve had another go The Great Gatsby. Such a time since I looked at it that I could recall only one incident and there are in fact, as far as I can see, only two dramatic incidents in the whole book. I find that I’m still rather lukewarm about the characters. I recognise that Fitzgerald was portraying a kind of frenetic world-weariness and that so many of his players are quite deliberately portrayed as frivolous and shallow. Even so, could he not have made them live a shade more convincingly?

Gatsby himself ought to stand out as a tragic figure, a great lost romantic hero, a man of significantly mysterious background. But he’s not strongly enough etched for that kind of role. I wanted more Heathcliff in his personality, more dash. After all he’s linked to Wolfshiem, the man who fixed the World Series in 1919. You don’t think a gangster like Wolfshiem – in real life, Arnold Rothstein - was going to take on such a limp figure as one of his main men, do you? He is a major crime figure and so by implication is Gatsby.

As for the women I had feelings for only Daisy Buchanan and poor Myrtle Wilson, the latter no more than a bit player who is to have a powerful effect on how the story will ultimately turn out.

And that’s it. Or at least, that’s nearly it, for what raises the novel above the average is Fitzgerald’s wonderful capacity for summoning up atmosphere, the mood of place and the essence, the very feel of time, of bracing mornings, of heavy humid afternoons and the calm of evenings. His descriptions are really outstanding, not just Gatsby’s palace or the Buchanans’ ‘cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay’ but Nick Carraway’s ‘weatherbeaten cardboard bungalow’ in West Egg and Wilson’s down-at-heel garage. But best of all is Fitzgerald’s calling up of that desolate area of land, ‘a ‘valley of the ashes’, its ugly sense of being set in a kind of no-man’s-land between Gatsby’s Xanadu and New York where the book’s cataclysmic event will take place.

So did I enjoy it, this second reading, so many years from my first foray?

Frankly I did and that in spite of all my reservations.  That I should enjoy a book whose characters in the main failed to move me is odd.

It is odd, don’t you agree?