A couple of weeks ago I wrote about novels featuring dinner parties with truly horrible people. If you thought that post was depressing…welcome to its companion piece, all about alcoholism. It seemed an obvious theme for a new year’s post, but I apologise in advance for just how bleak my choices are. Excellently written novels, but on finishing them I did wonder if there were enough kittens on YouTube to aid my recovery…
Firstly, Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1929-1934) a trilogy of novels about people who work in and frequent The Midnight Bell pub on the Euston Road between the two World Wars. The trilogy begins with barman Bob:
“The gas-lit walls and objects around him were heavy with his own depression – the depression of one who awakes from excess in the late afternoon. Only at dawn should a man awake from excess – at dawn agleam with red and sorrowful resolve. The late, dark afternoon, with an evening’s toil ahead, affords no such palliation.”
Bob is frustrated writer who never does any writing, and he falls for Jenny, a prostitute. As he pursues her, the reader can see so clearly what Bob cannot: that he will never win her, and she will only suck him financially dry. Hamilton is a sensitive and non-judgemental writer, and so the reader isn’t positioned to judge Bob for his stupidity nor Jenny for her avarice. Instead we are shown that Bob is deluded, and pushing his fantasies onto Jenny. For her, this is a common occurrence, she is paid to be what men want her to be. When Bob comes to his senses, he doesn’t judge her harshly:
“He believed it was not her fault. Existence had abused her and made her what she was; poverty had crushed him and made him unable to help her. He knew he had never made any impression on her, and never would have done so. He knew that it had all come from him, and only the obsession and hysteria of pursuit had given a weak semblance of reciprocation.”
It is a sad tale, about the capacity to lie to ourselves, and the fantasies used to hide from life. Hamilton does inject humour at times to lighten the tale slightly:
“ ‘Talking to those Prostitutes,’ said Ella…
Her violent stress upon the first syllable of this word implied a differentiation between a large class of almost venial Titutes, and another branch of the same class, designated Pros, and beyond the pale.”
Ultimately, though, a sense of sad, quiet desperation pervades.
The second tale goes back in time to show how Jenny became a sex worker. She is frustrated by the restraints on women’s behaviour and life choices at this time. But then Jenny discovers the love of her life, alcohol:
“This was her ruin – she was getting drunk again. This was the turning point of her life. If she lost her will now she had lost all. Yet why not? With one word of assent she could be lifted from undreamed of woe to undreamed of bliss – step out from her deep unhappiness as from a garment. She could be free of all care. She could have a grand time.”
And we know where this takes her. Like Bob, Jenny seeks an escape into something which cannot sustain her. Unlike Bob, she does not move on, and her life becomes hopeless.
The third tale belongs to Ella, running parallel to Bob’s. Ella is different, in that she is a realist, and has somehow managed not to give up all hope. She is in love with Bob but knows he will never feel the same. She is courted by an older man, whom she considers marrying, despite her misgivings, as she knows he will help support her dissolute mother:
“ ‘Call me Ernest in Ernest, eh!’ said Mr Eccles. ‘That’s rather a good one. I must remember that.’
Oh dear, thought Ella, if that was his idea of a good one, it was a poor outlook for the more frothy side of their proposed future as an engaged couple.”
Hamilton gives Ella the most humour in her voice, and I was really rooting for her not to marry Eccles (despite it meaning she would adopt his excellent cakey name), not to despair and not to give up.
“The Ring, and after eight weeks, enslavement for life – a life of Sundays in which she walked respectably round Regent’s Park with this rather elderly, rather good-looking, arch, often irritable, self-conscious bowler-hatted maniac who had never rightly understood a single thought going on in her head!”
I finished Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky feeling, frankly, depressed. This is an indication of its excellence though: the characters are believable, the portrayals sensitive, the writing sharply observed.
The BBC adapted Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky in 2006. I saw it at the time and from my memory it was very good. Some kind soul has uploaded all 3 episodes to YouTube and it stars the wonderful Sally Hawkins as the luckless Ella, so definitely worth a look.
Image from here
Secondly, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1957-1968) a beat generation classic set amongst the drug addicts, sex workers and hustlers of Brooklyn. Despite being a hugely famous book, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Hence: a trigger warning of extreme subject matter to follow. The lives Selby depicts are unrelenting in their brutality and extreme violence. Each section focuses on a different character, beginning with Georgette, a transsexual prostitute:
“Her life didnt revolve, but spun centrifugally, around stimulants, opiates, johns (who paid her to dance for them in womens panties then ripped them off her; bisexuals who told their wives they were going out with the boys and spent the night with Georgette (she trying to imagine they were Vinnie)), the freakish precipitate coming to the top.”
Poor Georgette is fundamentally a romantic, who desperately wants to be loved, but looks for it in all the wrong places. To be honest, I couldn’t see that anyone would find even a grain of human kindness in Selby’s Brooklyn, let alone love. Selby’s style is stream of consciousness, avoiding punctuation so as not to disrupt the flow, in an attempt to capture the authentic voices of the characters. He does this brilliantly, and his artfulness does not disrupt from the sense of chaos in the character’s lives. The style is perfect for the story he wants to tell.
Selby has great feeling for the people whose lives he wants to depict. He does not judge them, but tries to present their lives truthfully without sentimentality. He certainly has more compassion for them than they have for themselves:
“his disgust seeming to wrap itself around him as a snake slowly, methodically and painfully squeezing the life from him, but each time it reached the point where just the slightest more pressure would bring an end to everything; life, misery, pain, it stopped tightening, retained the pressure and Harry just hung there his body alive with pain, his mind sick with disgust.”
In all honesty, this was nearly a rare DNF for me. Not because it was a terrible book, but because it was just an unrelentingly tough read. There is a horrific depiction of rape at one point, of Tralala, a prostitute, and I just didn’t know if I could go on. Apparently Selby himself had to go to bed for two weeks after writing that story. What kept me going was that Selby is a great writer, and I’m glad I did, (despite then having to read about the crucifixion of a paedophile) because the last section of the book was my favourite. It is a montage piece cutting across various inhabitants in the course of a day, and really gives a sense of the neighbourhood and the lives therein. Ada in particular was very affecting – a grieving, eccentric widow, desperately lonely and sitting outside on a bench all day:
“Ada almost yelled at them, but stopped as she noticed that now women were coming down and people were going to the store and children were running and laughing and the sun was getting brighter and warmer and a few men straddled a bench with a checker board between them and maybe someone would sit down next to her and they would talk.”
So, an incredibly powerful piece of writing, but one that I’m glad is over for me. Last Exit to Brooklyn was also adapted into a film, in 1989. I always try and avoid absolute resolutions, but I feel fairly safe saying there is no way I will ever be watching it…
To end, a question for you Reader: why is it when people say “Why does no-one write songs with stories anymore?” (which is true) they so often follow up the comment with “You know, like Richard Marx?” It’s very distressing, because after I’ve finished rending my garments, I have physically restrain them and force them to listen to Leonard Cohen and Squeeze. Here is a song about an alcoholic by the much-underrated band. Not their finest, but so apt for this post. I don’t really worry about my drinking, but the lyric “Like some kind of witch, with blue fingers in mittens/She smells like the cats, and the neighbours she sickens” does make me worry that Glenn Tillbrook has seen my future… where did I put those YouTube kittens?