Friday, May 06, 2011

One Last Mad Embrace by Jack Trevor Story

I first came across Jack Trevor Story's writing in the Guardian during the 1970s. Those columns, in which the narrator seemed perpetually trying to win back his wayward girlfriend Maggie, would later be collected in Letters to an Intimate Stranger. When I first read them, I enjoyed, and was happily  perplexed by, the way those articles blurred the line between autobiography and fiction. I would later learn it was more the former than the latter. Michael Moorcock, who calls Story "a working class Proust," insists that the wilder bits in Story's writing are invariably autobiographical, while the more mundane parts are those he's made up. Though referencing Proust might be accurate regarding the manner in which Story documents Britain during the last half of the 20th century, it hardly describes his writing style, which is invariably straight-forward, filled nevertheless with playful asides and narrative interjections. 

When I first read Story I was also unaware that he had not only written the novel and script for Hitchcock's Trouble With Harry (for which Hitch paid him all of £150), but had authored under his own name as well as under various pseudonyms, a number of other books, including some Sexton Blake novels and a handful of westerns. Influenced by Saroyan, as well as Orwell and Arnold Bennett, Story was  a cross between an American pulp writer and a modernist.  Yet for many years his work was most often found in the bargain bins of UK charity shops and secondhand bookstores. Surely it was only a matter of time before he would be read again. After all, he has championed by the likes of Moorcock and  Iain Sinclair. And Story definitely deserves to appreciated, though I doubt if the Guardian would publish his work today as it did in the 1970s, so politically incorrect and irreverent is Story's humour and perspective.  

But there is also a dark edge to Story's fiction, as seen not only in One Last Mad Embrace, but going back to The Trouble With Harry. Always anti-authoritarian, Story moves from portraying the police as bumbling idiots, PC Plods, less malicious than incompetent. According to Moorcock, this changes in the late 1960s due to a personal encounter with the authorities. Story's world is also filled with malign and sometimes inexplicable forces engendered by  the state, or those who side with the state in letter or spirit of the state, or the corrupt. 

Like much of his other work, One Last Made Embrace starts as an absurdist comedy, but gradually drifts into surreal farce. Along the way we meet a  cast of characters some of whom have populated previous Fenton novels. Set in the early 1970s, Fenton, thrice married, drives a white Capri, occupies a Hampstead flat  with four nurses and is involved Ariadne, the foul-mouthed daughter of a fading star, who might be 12, 14 or 17, and who might even be someone else altogether, depending on which way the narrative is moving at any particular moment. The story involves a search for £5m, a back-from-the-dead film producer, the staging of a new BBC drama series about an unmarried mother, anonymous postcards and phone-calls, wronged husbands out for revenge, a vigilante student group, a crucifixion, a threesome, an abortion, a car chase to Scotland, a dead sheep, a novel written on a toilet roll by a lunatic, and a clairvoyant landlady who sleeps on a coffin.  One Last Mad Embrace is just the most recent Story novel to be republished. Hopefully others will follow. Certainly, Story has gone unread, or read by only a dedicated few, for too long. And if you can find them, all his books, the Argyle novels-   Live Now, Pay Later, Something for Nothing and The Urban District Lover)-  as well as the Horace Spurgeon Fenton books- One Last Made Embrace, but I Sit in Hanger Lane and Hitler Needs You- are all worth checking out.

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