Wednesday, September 28, 2011
The Angel and the Cuckoo is probably Kersh's most dense book, yet it is arguably his funniest- its humor invariably dark- taking place as it does in a pre-WW2 demi-monde with artists, criminals, conmen, singers, film people and writers rubbing shoulders. It's comprised of three love stories, linked by Steve Zobrany, the proprietor of The Angel and the Cuckoo, a cafe at the end of Carnaby Street which is frequented by the characters degrees of loucheness, including Zobrany’s compatriot Gèza Cseh, who starts a busboy in Vienna, but mutates into Baron Cseh, then goes to Hollywood; Tom Henceforth (“Henceforth henceforth,” he announces proudly), "an artist without an art" who has an affection for various illegal activities; Perp, the godfather of the Brighton underworld; and a variety of crooks, tarts, con-men, and a hack writing an in-depth article entitled “Would I Live My Life Over Again?” While geographically the novel takes the reader from Poland Street in Soho through to Oxford Street, south to Blackfriars, to the Farringdon Road, then back to Carnaby Street.
This is another fine publication from London Books which comes with an informative introduction by Kersh biographer Paul Duncan, which alone is almost worth the price of the book. From it we learn that Kersh, who originally called the novel Poor Tom Henceforth, hoped the book, which he started writing in 1963, would be a success in America. In fact, he hadn't published a novel in the States since Fowler's End in 1957. This novel, his nineteenth, would be finished three years later, in 1966, and Kersh sent finished copies to the likes of Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Ellery Queen, JB Priestly, John Steinbeck and, strangely enough, Jane Fonda. However, even though Night and the City had sold over a million copies, The Angel and the Cuckoo would sell something like two-thousand. Yet it did receive a modicum of critical acclaim. Less than two years later Kersh would die from the cancer that had been eating away at him for some time. Long out of print, The Angel and the Cuckoo, though evoking a bygone era, has stood the test of time and, with its anarchic drift, so much more.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Invariably a man who likes his narratives to retain more than a small amount of internal mystery, Sallis, as usual, makes no excuses for that mystery, by which I really mean narrative complexity. Here, without revealing his hand too soon, Sallis intertwines three world-weary narratives, allowing them to compete with one another before becoming almost indistinguishable. Likewise, dream and reality, and everything becomes dependent on everything else: an ageing detective whose wife is dying, a young boy struggling to survive on his own, and a hit man looking for the person who beat him to his target. The boy is left with the hit-man's dreams, while the hit-man leaves messages for the cop who is tracking him down. They all have their own story, fragments of lost lives that reveal their vulnerability, their sense of mortality, and their latent desire to connect.
The Killer... is also a novel about the southwest, that crazy place where politicians are shot, immigrants are suspect, and the sun, which eats into the skin, puts everyone on edge, and makes skin cancer merely a chapeau away. But that makes the place only fractionally more crazy or dangerous than anywhere else. It helps, though barely explains Sallis's fondness for approaching things at an odd angle, or for someone who searches for their nemesis only to find it's their spiritual double. As one cop says to an older cop, "It would help if we had some idea what we're looking for." The older cops answers, "And how often does that happen, that we know what we're looking for?" Not often, is all one can say, because The Killer is about coming to terms with things, whether disillusionment, compromise or the mysteries of life: "Maybe we have to [lose the dream], to go on. Or maybe we only displace it, as we do so much else. Is that why we are all so sad? Are we? Sad? How can we be with life so full around us, with so very much of the world to engage in? But always the bad ending. Is the ending what matters?" To which one can only add, no, it's not at all, it's not the ending that matters, but how one arrives at it; it's the process that counts, and that's something Sallis and the characters in the The Killer... know all too well.