Somewhere on the road between Twin Peaks and Faulkner country you might come across Pinckney Benedict hacking out a prickly little clearing for himself in the shadow of some of American fiction’s more established, and more pronounceable, names – Pynchon, Steinbeck and Sam Shepard among them. Pinckney Benedict’s world is a small-town one, real backwoods stuff, an angle which his publishers are not over-anxious to play down. He lives, apparently, on the family farm. The cover picture has him in smart check shirt and braces, no doubt chewing a slug of baccy. Like Pynchon’s and Nelson Algren’s, his writing celebrates tips, junkyards, diners, small-town sheriffs’ offices. ‘Small’ is an understatement. These are virtually ghost towns, with less than their fair share of socially well-adjusted individuals – haunted by small minds and by characters who are, to adapt a phrase, a prong short of a pitchfork. And whereas Pynchon and Algren, and more recently William Vollman, tend to have sought out big city trash, Benedict is more at home among the rocks and trees with God’s own good dirt. His one fully-committed excursion from the bush, ‘At the Alhambra’, describing a vacation in Nicaragua, is his least successful. Even then, the ill-tempered Bowlesian Americans-on-holiday couple spend most of their time observing un-Americans from their hotel balcony and trying to remember where it was the name ‘Alhambra’ came from.
Though there’s an uncertainty about this piece, perhaps a result of the geographical dislocation, it shares a mannerism with others in The Wrecking Yard in that its argument is resolved by the shedding of blood. In this case, a woman accidentally lacerates her hand as she listens anxiously to her husband being duped into entering the Nicaraguan ice-making business. Blood splashes on her yellow sundress, ice is brought to heal the wound and the couple return to the United States. This is typical of Benedict’s narrative rhythms. Fictional climax is denoted by an opening of flesh, a skinning, or a horrible death. When stuck for Marlowe’s next move Chandler, famously, would have someone come through the door toting a gun. Benedict drops bodies out of the sky. It rains dogs, pigs, rabbits, cows and in one instance people. In ‘Rescuing Moon’ Grady goes to spring his old trapping buddy Moon from an asylum (as stark an opposition of town and country as you could ask for). As they make their getaway the car tyres pulverise the warden’s prize rutting rooster and her furious, sexually frustrated assistant lobs a skinned rabbit from a balcony. It bounces off the car and ‘a couple busted bones poke out of the flesh. There is juice on the windshield where it hit.’ In the finely crafted title story, ‘The Wrecking Yard’, rural America’s truck-borne equivalent of the Cornish wreckers go looking for salvage among the bloody meat of a cattle truck, memorably ‘rear-ended by a highballin hog-truck’, and later watch a girl hauled, like so much dead meat, from the wreckage of a car which has flown from the mountain road. This implied comparison of man and beast becomes a redrawing of humanity in the image of red-toothed nature in ‘Horton’s Ape’, where a baboon steals a camera and escapes from its cage, photographing the spectators, devouring a pig and climbing a tree from where it flaunts its mirror-image savagery at the dumb humans. In ‘The Wrecking Yard’ a cop calls the wreckers ‘parasites on accidents, swarming around where blood collects’: but Benedict’s main point is that dead things are dead, whether young girls, stupid cows or furry little animals. Living on a farm, he should know.
Of course, he may spend his days at a word-processor while gleaming machines suck milk from the family’s dairy herd. But we are, I think, being asked to accept his rural credentials as some kind of authentication of the fictions. Further, there’s a sense that part of the authenticity lies in the violence. This is an issue touched on in the sensuous and rhythmic ‘Getting over Arnette’. Set in diner and ten-pin bowling alley land, it is laced with some gorgeous images which make hillbilly hick sound almost hip. Phrases such as ‘Tatum leaving herself a nasty split on the first frame’ or Mary Teasdale ‘putting one right in the 1-3 pocket and dropping all ten pins’ spring from the characters’ immersion in that environment, and set off the strangeness of the language of Vietnam veteran Leonard Meadows: ‘He mentioned stuff like phosphorous rounds and grenade launchers and flamethrowers as if they were normal parts of the world and just sitting around there in the room to be touched and handled and used on an everyday basis.’ The two linguistic worlds collide when Meadows ends a punch-up by asking his assailant: ‘Do you crave to see your pancreas laying here in the palm of my hand?’
In a story where two men have been beaten up by women for ‘stripping us naked, poking and prodding’ with their eyes, the blood and guts aren’t entirely gratuitous. Benedict’s pen is digging around for something, peeling off the layers of humanity in the most graphic of ways – by showing how we are defined by our forms of expression. Robbed of this dimension to his obsession with flesh and freaks, he might resemble his carnival master in ‘The Electric Girl’, who says: ‘Without me the freaks are just ugly. With me they got romance, they got dash.’
Barry Unsworth spent some time in Sugar and Rum having a laugh at the dash and romance turned out by his protagonist’s creative writing students and examining the writer’s propensity to make ‘meanings’. Early in that novel Benson was rebuked for trying to see signs in a man’s suicide jump. He thought it may have been ‘a kind of paradigm, leap of birth’, but was told: ‘No stages there man. When he jump off, that the end of the story.’ There was a sense of desperation about the writer’s position. ‘Wretched spouter’ he was called, ‘weary of his own fluency. Not really engaged with anything.’ The ennui and self-doubt which afflicted the writer-hero in that book have been well and truly jettisoned in favour of a return to classic lines of storytelling in Sacred Hunger. And a renewed sense of ‘engagement’ is evident in the minutely-detailed recreation of his chosen period and in the weight of knowledge which informs this richly researched book. The shocking pivotal crime (ditching slaves overboard to claim the insurance) accurately reflects the enduring importance gained by 18th-century marine insurance in the scheme of British commerce.
There is, however, a lot more than research to praise here. Unsworth’s seamless prose is elegant and economical (perhaps surprisingly in a book this thick), his many characters for the most part fully fleshed out and his narrative pace faultless. But in one sense Sacred Hunger feels like a retreat from the darker corners of Sugar and Rum. Doubt, after all, is held to be of redeeming value in the new book, but the smooth assurance of the prose, the very clarity of the structure and the transparency of the narrative almost undermine this theme.
Sacred Hunger pushes out the boat, which, for Benson, was stuck in dry dock. As Unsworth puts it in his account of the ship’s construction, ‘she began to look like herself again, as is the gradual way of art.’ Such self-consciousness doesn’t intrude too often, although the thorny old problem of how to render ‘significance’ without trying too hard rears its head in the book’s worst line, where Unsworth slips into a curious sarcasm, describing ‘the triangular trade’ as the ‘greatest commercial venture the world had ever seen’. ‘That the ship was a mere corpuscle in this nourishing bloodstream,’ he goes on, ‘was not easy to imagine for the men aboard her.’ I should think not. This may be meant as a joke, but seems odd from a writer whose delicacy of touch is abundantly clear in the light mockery of the courtship of Erasmus Kemp and Sarah Wolpert, wherein feverish emotions ‘spring’ from ‘agitated’ and scarcely controlled breathing amid the ‘musky secretions of May’.
The triangular trade in which the vessel, the Liverpool Merchant, is employed – British goods and arms for Africans who were then sold on to the West Indian sugar plantations – reached its peak in the late 18th century, when, it is thought, the export of slaves from West Africa averaged 66,000 per year. It was the mother of all trades, involving the transfer of maybe twelve million Africans and the death of many more. Amid this monstrous commerce, Unsworth sets Matthew Paris, nephew of the ship’s owner and free-thinking precursor to Charles Darwin. Paris ‘liberates’ the Liverpool Merchant’s cargo and establishes a kind of Rousseauesque commune in Florida. In London, meanwhile, his cousin Erasmus Kemp foresakes romance for cash and becomes a smooth operator in the sugar trade. His rise in this burgeoning market, and up through the mercantile classes, far removed from the clanking of leg-irons and the lash of the whip, gives rein to some pointed satire. Outstanding is the splendidly corrupt Dr Sugar, veteran of the sugar trade, who claims a thousand uses for the commodity, including eye and skin lotions and of course a dental paste; and there are dark bacchanalian rites at the sugar traders’ club where a dancer simulates sex with a phallus made of sugar. But the satire is panoramic:
‘Sir,’ Partridge said, ‘this is an expanding age, the nation is prospering, our voice is heard in the councils of Europe. As a result of this the cost of everything goes up daily and that must also include gifts, rewards and all manner of pecuniary inducements Numbers of men are getting richer and greater numbers are getting poorer. Alas, both classes have higher expectations these days.’ The attorney permitted a lean smile to move his jaws. ‘In short, sir,’ he said with a burst, “there has been a leap in bribes.’
It is hard to escape the impression that Unsworth is talking about the economic miracle with which we are supposed to have been blessed in the Eighties. But he is going further, chipping away at the fundamentals of capital trade, with the question gradually emerging: would man, free and happy in a state of nature, still seek to accumulate wealth by enslaving others? Don’t know, is the resounding reply. While a firmer response is not forthcoming, the fault – the dynamic which justifies injustices – is seen to lie in the very structures of Western thought. ‘If we cannot proceed from particular truths to general ones our thoughts will get nowhere,’ says Paris, to which a ‘freed’ slave replies: ‘Better for us you get nowhere. Partikklar to gen’ral is story of the slave trade.’ The sacred hunger, commerce, is seen to enslave the masters as much as the ostensible victims, but other than in the childish head of Sarah Wolpert and a failed production of The Enchanted Island, Unsworth offers, in any case, little sense of a paradise lost. Even Matthew Paris’s ‘enlightened’ theories are in danger of herding men together under some supposedly common law of human nature. Another freed slave who makes good scotches the noble savage alternative, expounding the (currently familiar) theory that the rich will drag the poor up with them: ‘Strong man get rich, him slave get rich. Strong man make everybody rich. Everybody dis place happy an’ rich come from trade. Some man not free, nevermind, buggerit, trade free.’
Almost exactly half-way through Sacred Hunger Paris comes across Delblanc, portrait-painter to the company officials, agents and merchants up and down the coast of Africa. Delblanc shows him a portrait described as ‘the face of plunder, the face of Europe in Africa’. A less skilled writer might have made a hash of the hammy old technique whereby a thing (such as a portrait) is crowbarred into the narrative for the sake of a running theme. It is characteristic of Barry Unsworth’s mastery throughout the book that he gets away with it.
As far as I’m aware, the Beano has not (yet) played muse to a huge number of writers of fiction, though I do recall a study pointing out the similarities between Ted Hughes’s Crow and the narrative style of comic books. There is also, of course, Viz, the parody featuring Johnny Fartypants, Fat Slags, Buster Gonad (and His Unfeasibly Large Testicles) et al. Most popular forms of entertainment are sooner or later hauled aboard the ship of highbrow art, whether as ‘pop art’ or pastiche: not until now, though, has it happened to the comic, which in the light of Patrick McCabe’s torrential and compelling The Butcher Boy is eminently suited to such treatment. Consider the Beano, for example, a series of moral tales repeated in only slightly modified form week after week. In a very simple way comics are about crime and punishment, cause and effect, children’s fear of adults; and – something which Viz brought to the fore – they are preoccupied with food and shit. The anti-hero of The Butcher Boy defecates in his neighbour’s house, steals buns from the bakery and slaughters pigs. McCabe may never have read the Beano in his life, but if he hasn’t this reviewer is a lollipop.
McCabe probably wouldn’t thank me for dragging him aboard. The whole tenor of The Butcher Boy is subversive and accusatory. We are offered the tragi-comedy of Francie Brady, the son of a drunkard for a father and a suicide for a mother. Through a galloping first-person account we leant of Francie’s headlong career into trouble and more trouble and of the fracturing of relations with his family and friends. In and out of reform school, jobs, hospital and gaol, he moves with the episodic predictability of the Bash Street Kids towards a bloody crime and a sad end. McCabe cleverly exploits the potential of the comic strip in a number of ways. He creates a richly complex character full of contradictions and as likely to win affection (and cult status) as any Dennis or Illywhacker or Holden Caulfield. Francie is by turns cunning, quick-witted, impetuous, honest, open-hearted, treacherous, exuberant, paranoid, schizoid and sentimental. McCabe also uses the comic strip’s narrative momentum, the breathless pace and insistent rhythm, to develop a kind of double movement, whereby at some points Francie is ahead of us – Hey yup! away and off up the street on his travels – while at others he is painfully slow to catch on, oblivious to the writing on the wall. En route, the simplicity of expression gives rise to some curiously dainty images and sly humour. In a court of law he might plead diminished responsibility. To put it another way, as he loses touch he gains in innocence.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.