Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Driving Jarvis Ham by Jim Bob

I had a very enjoyable weekend this weekend past, spent drinking and then recovering with some friends with whom this had not been done in quite a while. One of them is a former radio presenter from Coventry (he’s from Lincolnshire, but the radio station was in Coventry) who regaled those present with tales of performer misadventures, including Ginger from The Wildhearts, and amongst others (discretely, if not discreetly), Carter USM.

[The knowing amongst my readers would spot immediately to where I’m off with this little prologue]

In return for these interesting revelations, another of the party, himself a Wildhearts fan (a British band who interestingly offer their website in both English and Japanese) nodded knowingly as he offered an anecdotal riposte about his friend who baked a birthday cake for Les Fruitbat Carter.

[Eeep! In the drive for proximal glory I may have wandered, but shall endeavour to pull this back in]

Which in turn reminded me to ask both if they’d read either of the novels written by Jim Bob – curt shakes of heads to indicate the negative.  Thankfully (for them) I was unable to launch into a fevered pre-emptive defence of the prose stylings of Carter’s front man, as one friend turned to vociferously appraise the relative aesthetic values of the chicklets and crumpets of Cardiff in direct comparison to the nugatory beauty of those of his current place of residence, Hull.

What I might have said, given the chance, would likely have sounded much like the review I wrote of Storage Stories a few months back, but with more direct reference to Jim Bob’s latest offering.

That's not got much ham in it.
Driving Jarvis Ham, despite engendering a rather endearing Vimeo collage of Pets Reading Jarvis Ham, and being championed by the independent bookselling world at large (notably The Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace, where I got my signed copy of Jarvis) is unlikely to burst onto the literary scene in the way that explicit pornography has done so recently, or capture the hearts and minds of generations of would-be public school whipping boys á la J.K. Rowling. It is however, likely to be embraced by those in search of an entertaining read, those with long-standing emotional ties to the music of the late 80s, 90s and perhaps those currently on the nostalgia trail with Carter USM’s recent touring activities – “the best show at [name of festival omitted due to drunken mishearing] by far” says @Governmentyard.

Ostensibly the story of the *cough* rise and fall of one fame hungry young man, with the talent of an ashtray and the looks to match (think 1960s ashtrays, not those cool James Bond cut glass ones), it’s told by Jarvis Ham’s long standing friend and *cough cough* manager, for whom the spectacle of a talentless turd endlessly wringing emotional resonance from a near miss with Princess Diana outside a Wimpey in the 80s, and prostituting his dreams to a public immune to their charms seems to be relentlessly engrossing, a bit like watching someone play Tetris to a high level and having to provide them with Pot Noodles and a bucket in which to piss so they can concentrate on what they’re doing. I didn’t quite understand this attachment, but didn’t worry myself over it, unlike the narrator’s unseen girlfriend, whose concerns are noted on occasion as narrative ballast. The dramatic twist, when it comes, hinted at through fricative warnings throughout not to become attached to the protagonist, involves a series of assaults and eventually murders in a chain of roadside diners along the arterial A road between London and the south west. And as an explanation for his long-suffering support, it barely does justice to the longevity of the narrator’s association.

However, Jarvis’ secret alcoholism, his own pathetic collection of Jarvis memorabilia, the dry voice of Jim Bob’s mouthpiece, the badly drawn pictures of newspaper clippings and shoes, and the references to “culture in inverted commas” (my inverted commas, not Jim Bob’s) all add up, idiosyncratically, to fill a slim volume with wit, charm and style, reminding me why I enjoy Carter and other Jim Bob musical vehicles, and making me chuckle to myself at the world and everything. Bordering on the daft, but never crossing the line, Driving Jarvis Ham is darkly amusing, a fittingly acerbic observation on the pursuit of fame by those without natural ability, but by a man whose own flame of fame deserves a little fanning.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Quoth the raven, "What is
Conan Doyle on about?"
For a number of years I was mistaken in the belief that Hjortsberg's only contribution to the morass of the Western literary tradition was 1978's frankly awesome Falling Angel, intriguingly brought to the big screen as Angel Heart in the 80s by Alan Parker with Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel (names not so awesome, admittedly) and convincingly evil Robert De Niro as Lucifer incarnate. Now, I learn that not only has he finally completed a monster biography of Richard Brautigan called Jubilee Hitchhiker (for more on my own personal love of Brautigan, shared via the brains of the world's most eccentrically lovely people, visit The Brautigan Book Club), but that he has also dabbled in sci-fi and been consistently dribbling other literary content onto the bib of public opinion for many years!

As a former bookstore manager, I should be ashamed. But you clearly don't know me if so you think, as I am not.

This, written in 1994, is a work that, more than just a little, put me in mind of Glen David Gold's carpal tunnel-wrenchingly thick novel Carter Beats The Devil, in so far as both feature a world famous illusionist and a series of strange goings-on to tax the mind of a genius. That Gold's is fictitious and Hjortsberg's is none other than Mr Harry Houdini doesn't add much value to an otherwise intriguing murder mystery, but might explain why Gold chose to create one himself, rather than utilise one pre-fabricated, given that this one was already taken and there are few left to compare. Of course, Houdini gets a run out in Carter... if only to provide the whet stone against which Gold's character Charlie Carter sharpens his persona. 

What Hjortsberg does with an imaginative flourish that also carries echos through Carter... is to weave the stories of Houdini's attempts to expose fraudulent mystics with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's own spiritualist tour of America, in reality two circles which did touch, two personalities who did meet and a narrative device firmly rooted in the reality of the historian's pen, albeit with the artist's permitted license to tweak time lines to suit. Doyle, haunted by the ghost of Edgar A. Poe for a reason undisclosed but delicious for its mystery, arrives in Houdini's life just as Houdini's own faith in his scepticism is trembling with the blows landed by the arcane temptress  Opal Crosby Fletcher, another real-life charlatan making her fictive bow. 

Not to give away too much of the plot, for it is entirely engrossing and complex, but Houdini's retinue, past and present is being chipped away at by an unknown serial killer, who uses the stories of Poe as a template for his morbid entertainments, and Houdini becomes both enraptured and enraged by his adulterous lust for Fletcher whilst Doyle is swept up in Houdini's reckless boast that the mind behind Sherlock Holmes would easily solve the baffling killings. 

Mixed well, generously seasoned with wit and charm, brutal imagery and delicate word play, and baked in an imagination as febrile and fecund as that of Hjortsberg, what is served up is a stout and flavoursome stew of grand designs. I thoroughly recommend Hjortsberg to the uninitiated, to the avid crime reader and the sceptic alike, with no qualms about rejections. If you haven't tried him already, then it's not too late.