- Last Ferry to Manly by Jill Neville
Penguin, 165 pp, £4.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 14 007068 0
- Down from the Hill by Alan Sillitoe
Granada, 218 pp, £7.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 246 12517 9
- God Knows by Joseph Heller
Cape, 353 pp, £8.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 224 02288 1
- Wilt on High by Tom Sharpe
Secker, 236 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 436 45811 X
There is a seaside resort in New South Wales, with a ferry connection to Sydney. In 1788 it was named Manly Cove by a state governor, impressed by the proud bearing of the aborigines. They seem to have deteriorated since then, according to Lillian, the heroine of Last Ferry to Manly: she peers at aborigine children through the wire fence of an institution, and notes ‘the shrinking, stick-like way their bodies move’. None of the men of Manly live up to the 18th-century name. There are surfing boys on the beach, but they seem too young for middle-aged Lillian. She meets a man on the ferry from Sydney and he urges her not to jump overboard. He is a neatly dressed man called Bruiser, with an ugly, battered face and tattooed hands. A member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he says: ‘I used to love me metho.’ Lillian takes rooms in the same boarding house as Bruiser. Another tenant is known as the Bad Man, because he is deranged, hostile to women, threatening them with violence. Other men look after him, because he has ‘been through the Pacific’. Drunks lurch along the coast, shouting obscenities. These, says Lillian, are ‘not the men Sydney women are searching for, but the others, the ones who actually inhabit the land’.
Sydney is Lillian’s home town. She has returned to Australia after an unsatisfactory career in Europe, bolting from her husband and sons. Manly is her bolthole. (The title, no doubt, alludes to Last Exit for Brooklyn.) When she goes to parties in Sydney, she finds that ‘the men are mainly homosexual, egging on the flamboyant females in order to recoil from them later,’ and the rich Sydney women seem to her like drag queens. At an art gallery opening, there is ‘the usual assortment of overdressed women with too few escorts’, and the men who aren’t homosexual ‘have the look of some rare object that must be closely guarded’. She returns to Manly, where ‘on a bench a man in make-up is scorching passers-by with his eyes.’ But Lillian tells herself she is enjoying the ‘ramshackle quality’ of both ‘high and low society in her home town’.
She is commissioned to write an article for a Sydney editor. He tells her his paper’s circulation rose when he ran a supplement on male homosexuality: ‘This is the second gay capital of the world after San Francisco... It started as a prison, maybe they retained the habit.’ Lillian likes the pock marks on his bluish jowls, and tries to ‘gain the erotic attention of this burly bastard’, but he tells her to write him a feature about Sydney lesbians: ‘They’re taking over the city. Striding about in overalls, copying New York ...’ Lillian goes to a women’s club where there is a notice on the wall: ‘Advice to a Heterosexual Woman. If you meet a Lesbian don’t scream or panic.’ Following this instruction, Lillian is soon involved in an affair with an attractive lesbian.
Lillian also takes on one of the beach boys, a friend of her nephew. He brings his copy of In Praise of Older Women when he visits her. Musing over the boy’s body, Lillian reminds herself that she is afraid of grown men. ‘Funny, she could reach out so easily for affection from a woman or a boy. Men, though, that’s a different story.’ Then the boy offers her a ‘trusting look’ – and that too makes her feel afraid. ‘He could die a cot-death if she wasn’t careful.’
These incidents are presented in impressionistic, poem-like paragraphs mingled with Lillian’s memories of her life in Europe, so that the reader feels like a detective trying to find out what has been going on. There is a dead woman called Katherine Feldmann about whom Lillian feels guilty. It seems that in London Lillian had become something of a literary ‘groupie’. She worked for a publisher who thought Katherine his most promising writer, but Lillian was more interested in Katherine’s husband, an archaeologist who appeared on television. She saw him at a party and thought: ‘Just blew in from Mars. With all the momentum of his flight still radiating from his flesh.’ Another woman told her: ‘Grow up, Lil. He’s got a huge fan club. Hands off.’ Nevertheless, Lillian got Mr Feldmann out in the garden and was sorry to discover that it was only a one-night stand, since he really preferred another, plumper groupie. Mrs Feldmann was getting depressed and the publisher urged Lillian to become her secretary and home help. Lillian missed the appointment and Katherine Feldmann was found dead. ‘It looked as if this suicide was a cry for help.’ That is, it seemed likely that Mrs Feldmann was expecting to be found by Lillian and rushed to hospital – but Lillian did not turn up.
After this, Lillian felt guilty about Katherine Feldmann. The dead author’s reputation grew and ‘a rash of suicides among sensitive women broke out. These women were kamikaze pilots in the just-brewing sex war.’ Lillian married a dull Frenchman, bore him two sons and then bolted to Manly, still brooding about Katherine. On the last page of the book, she is on the ferry again, listening to battered old Bruiser. Australians tell me that Manly is really quite a smart place and Sydney people go there at weekends by hydrofoil to do their shopping as well as use the beach – but there are certainly a lot of down-and-outs there. This is the world that Lillian has found, something like Limbo. Last Ferry to Manly offers a haunting account of what can happen to a woman who pursues men in a spirit of adventure, because she is afraid of them.
Down from the Hill is another novel about discontented middle-aged reminiscence. The narrator of the first section is a 17-year-old factory worker from Nottingham describing a long bicycle ride through the Midlands, 250 miles, stopping at a Youth Hostel and a bed-and-breakfast place for building workers. This took place in 1945, during the General Election with its surprising and exciting Labour victory, but the story is as fresh as if the boy had written it yesterday. The cyclist, Paul Morton, is expecting to leave his factory and become an air-traffic control assistant, but he is worried about a medical report which may prove him to be tubercular. The dust-cover biography of Alan Sillitoe suggests that the story may be partly autobiographical. The second section, a quarter of the length, gives us Paul Morton (in the third person, no longer narrating) in a boring motor car, following the same route, trying unsuccessfully to recapture his youthful enjoyment. He is now a middle-aged television playwright, disillusioned by the trendier sort of left-wing politics but more deeply indignant at the present Conservative Government and the deliberate creation of unemployment and ‘redundancy’.
The young narrator is a rather dour sort of boy, defensively guarding the loneliness of his long-distance ride. Another cyclist wants to ride alongside him, but he is rather a posh boy, with a Conservative family. Then there is a middle-aged man on a heavy, tank-like bike who shouts eccentric opinions like: ‘The British are a nation of slaves!’ He, too, must be left behind. Paul finds the girl he was looking for: he had met her with his mate, Albert, in Stafford and she is sorry he has not brought Albert with him, for her friend, Gwen. He meets a Ukrainian working for (quarrelling with, perhaps living with) a female farmer who sports a mannish shirt and tie. He feels more comfortable with three North Country boys, amiably dim, making no demands, and with the building workers who suggest he should become their tea boy. It is better to work out of doors, on building sites, than in a factory, they suggest.
The idea of being a tea-boy crops up again in the second section, when the middle-aged Paul gives a lift to an unemployed man travelling the country, moving south from Liverpool, looking for work: ‘On a building site, if I can. Even as a tea-lad, if they’ll have me.’ Paul, as a playwright, begins to dream up a television script about this hitchhiker, a sort of thriller, but the man starts talking about Handel, listening to Israel in Egypt on the car radio: he had been in a choral society before he was made redundant. They talk of the prophet Isaiah and Paul is moved to think: ‘The television set lives for us, now that we have sold our birthright to the computers.’ He has been led to this thought by a conversation with an old man he met in Stafford. Paul had asked him about his former girlfriend and her family: the old man knew all about them but wanted to talk only about the plot of a television serial and the behaviour of one Muriel Fletcher (for whom Paul had written scripts), as if her television life was more real than that of the old man’s neighbours. There is not much of a plot to this novel. It is more like Priestley’s English Journey, a travel book with stern thoughts. ‘We’ve got everything to fight for, but we don’t believe in God, so we can’t.’ Or, still using religious language: ‘If he had work, he was one of the elect. If he had no work, he was one of the damned – not even in Limbo.’
God Knows has a lightning flash on the cover, looking like Mosley’s armlet, but Joseph Heller’s novel is not deliberately anti-Jewish. It is meant to be an autobiography of King David, the sweet singer of Israel, as told by a wisecracking New Yorker who fancies himself as a Jewish wit. Cocteau once said of the French child poet, Minou Drouet: ‘All children are poets, except Minou.’ Something like that might be said of Joseph Heller in his efforts to pose as a Jewish wit. But not all Jews are witty – some are as corny as Old Ollie Isaacs in Linklater’s Juan in America. Joseph Heller is in the Old Ollie tradition and should be directed away from the Old Testament.
It’s a long book and, though it’s not exactly flat, he’d need to do a little more to earn a living wage – if he was not supported by the reputation of Catch 22. Heller’s long book takes even longer to read because one must turn up the Bible, every now and then, to see how he has defaced the beauties and distorted the stories. We have to imagine King David denouncing the King James Bible on the grounds that James was a ‘faggot’ and insisting that there was nothing faggotty about his own friendship with Jonathan. He quotes David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, only to interrupt it with: ‘You see? I do call him a brother, don’t I?’
The 20th-century nervousness about David’s feelings for other men is matched by the pseudo-butch joshing about his women. Joseph Heller does not try to understand what a religious, polygamous society is like. He should go and live in Nigeria. He imagines Bathsheba leaning over David’s bed, where he lies with a handmaiden, and making ball-breaking remarks: ‘He never liked that. Why don’t you moisten your fingertips with something slippery.’ Heller imagines David announcing: ‘Oh, boy, did I cleave to her! “Holy shit!” were the words that sprang to my lips.’ He also observes that being a shepherd is rather like cunnilingus, but somebody has got to do it.
There is not much scope for bawdy burlesque jokes in the story of David. The nearest thing to comedy is the account of his wife, Michal, complaining that it is beneath the King’s dignity to dance before the Lord: she does sound rather like a modern shrew. It is, I suppose, quite amusing to suggest that Solomon was a very stupid man and that when he advised the rival mothers to cut the child in half he really thought this would be a good idea. But there is not much point in making the prophets Samuel and Nathan into wittering old bores, especially as Heller occasionally attempts to make a serious point about David’s relationship with his God. One might compare this book with A Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, since it is designed to devalue the sins and triumphs of a heroic age, but Mark Twain’s book, wrong-headed though it may be, had a purpose to it, and an original plot.
Heller expects a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament, so that his readers can giggle at it: ‘Solomon? That cheap prick won’t even build a parapet around his roof to protect himself from blood guilt if people fall off. You watch. Deuteronomy will get him if Leviticus doesn’t.’ There is a nattering sort of theologising here and there:
God does have this self-serving habit of putting all blame for His own mistakes upon other people, doesn’t He? He tends to forget that we are no more infallible than He is. He did that with Moses. He did it with me. He was gravely disappointed in Saul. But He sure guessed right with Abraham, didn’t He, our first patriarch.
This is very tedious. The oddest scrap of learning is this reference to Roman comedy: ‘I am David, not Oedipus.’ ‘Davus sum, non Oedipus.’ That should thoroughly confuse post-Freudian readers.
Heller giggles like a prematurely senile choirboy about King David’s many wives, about foreskins and circumcision. His book starts with a reference to the First Book of the Kings, wherein we are told that, when David was old and sick, his people found him a young virgin, saying: ‘Let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.’ According to the story, ‘the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.’ Joseph Heller cannot stop cackling over this. He comes back to it at the very end, when he has finished his depressingly unfunny parody of autobiography – but with a note of desperation: ‘I want my God back; and they send me a girl.’ This would be a good line with which to end a better book. God Knows could appeal only to those who like the idea of The Life of Brian or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It stimulates the laughter of fools, like thorns crackling under the pot.
Wilt on High seems to me much funnier, though I recognise that many will find it too crude. The reader mutters ‘No laughing matter’, between chuckles. No one in the book is very nice, or even attractive, except for a woman called Captain Clodiak who works at an American bomber base in Britain and sits in the audience with her legs crossed, wearing a sharp uniform, while Wilt is lecturing. Wilt teaches at a polytechnic, but has to lecture at the bomber base to earn money to support his wife and four daughters: he cannot tell his wife about this job because she is committed to CND. She is also a feminist and has ganged up with other women to improve Wilt’s sex drive through drugs. (They have already almost unmanned another husband whom they thought too randy.) Thus, when Wilt is lecturing to Captain Clodiak, he cannot control his penis, despite the cricket box and the bandages.
There are other troubles in store for Wilt, resulting from his attempts to teach English to a murderous drug peddler in the local jail: this man dislikes E.M. Forster on the ground that ‘he lived with a pig’ (P.C. Buckingham), but this is the least of the convict’s faults. A local policeman who hates Wilt makes use of his relationship with the convict in order to deceive a rival policeman into supposing that Wilt is a dangerous member of a drug-peddling gang. The deceived policeman bugs Wilt’s house and car with machinery so modern and intricate that the Americans at the bomber base suppose him to be a spy who must be arrested and beaten up. Wilt is now doomed to be rescued by the CND feminist coven ... The cleverness of Sharpe’s plotting and the skill of the narrative must be admired – and beneath the frightening jokes there is a sort of passion, a justified indignation about bugging and drugging, half-witted feminism, unjust policemen and bomber bases.