Off Narragansett

Karl Miller

  • Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn by Paul Watkins
    Century Hutchinson, 269 pp, £12.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 09 173914 4
  • Blood and Water by Patrick McGrath
    Penguin Originals, 183 pp, £4.99, February 1989, ISBN 0 14 011005 4
  • The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath
    Viking, 186 pp, £11.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 670 82987 0

Paul Watkins’s novel and Patrick McGrath’s The Grotesque are second books by young British writers whose work has been well-received in America, to which, together with its surrounding seas, both of these writers have been drawn. Paul Watkins used, they say, to set off from Eton for spells on an oil rig, and after graduating from Yale he fished for three years off the New England coast, where this novel of his is located. Patrick McGrath’s father was a medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital: he grew up nearby, and went on to write about criminal lunatics, and to spend a number of years on an island in the Pacific Ocean. The reader of their books is unlikely to forget these facts, but is also unlikely to forget that the adventurer and the recluse can be intent on marketing their words. All three of these entertaining books exhibit a professional writer, and the two McGraths could be called entertainments.

Paul Watkins’s novel describes an impulsion which would leave hardly any room, if experienced in the flesh, for a satisfaction of the wish to write books. James Pfeiffer tells how he wishes to be a fisherman, and to have a boat of his own one day, an inshore lobster boat. Meanwhile, for the duration of the novel, he goes quite far out to sea on board the Grey Ghost, a trawler whose crew meets with a succession of grisly accidents. ‘I set my good foot on the toe of my hurt foot and pulled the spike out myself.’ James’s teeth are then bashed in, and he loses a large lump of his savings to a dentist. His friend Kelley is bitten by a shark and soon afterwards has an arm ripped off by a cable. The Grey Ghost comes near to suffering the fate of the Marchioness on the Thames the other night, when it is threatened by an oncoming ship: ‘He said if it was a tanker, it would need several miles to slow down and at least half a mile to change course. If it was a barge being towed by a tug, and we drifted on to its towing cable, the Grey Ghost would be torn in half. If the tanker hit us, we would be torn apart by the impact and they wouldn’t even feel it.’

The ‘soon afterwards’ of the mishaps and threats can seem obtrusive. More awkward, for some readers, might be the sense that the Americans on board rarely seem or sound like Americans, and that Pfeiffer can seem at times like some rite-of-passage Etonian roughing it, and lucking out, on his adventures. The book nevertheless carries conviction as an account of what fishermen are like, on shore and off, and what the practice of fishing amounts to. The plain, clear prose is not unlike that of another wandering Etonian, and it is instructive in the way that Orwell is when he writes about his lower depths. The touches of humour are instructive too: taxi-drivers ‘sat on the hoods of their cars, wearing jeans and T-shirts with suspenders. People said they all went and had vasectomies together.’ Life on the trawler is no fun, though, for the most part. There is plenty of pain and squalor. And yet the novel has the love of the sea, and of boats, which so often succeeds in weathering translation to the page. Watkins’s bad scenes are mundane; his boat people are none of them especially good or bad, hard or soft. Pfeiffer is no Billy Budd, nor is there a Claggart, nor so much as the grey ghost of an Ahab. Watkins has a feeling for his first-person narrator which might have, but hasn’t, Billied him up a bit in a world which has its share of bullies.

It turns out that the trawler engages in drug-running – treasure trove for men who spend most of their time hacking at scallops and monkfish. James’s father has been trapped in the drug circuit himself, and his attempts to order his son away from the sea have to do with that. By the end, the question of involvement in this traffic has arisen for his son. The net is about to close.

Watkins springs ever so well his too many surprises. When the tanker bears down, Pfeiffer is sent by the captain to get out the captain’s survival suit. We hear a good deal about this. Its bright yellow letters of advice and reassurance are spelt out. And then, says Pfeiffer: ‘I put on the suit.’ His brother Joseph, an unlucky achiever, who is someone other than the foil he might have been in a book more devoted to a sentimental magnifying of James’s struggle, presses James to join him in a new plan for making money. He had heard about ‘people who sold surplus factory items on a television programme called Shopping at Home. Models walked back and forth in front of the camera wearing clothes or jewellery that hadn’t sold in stores, while the announcer worked up his audience by saying that the item’s retail value was a hundred dollars, but anyone who called in the next ten minutes could have it for thirty. Then $30 would flash on the screen while the model smoothed her hands up and down her dress and smiled, and the announcer said he couldn’t believe what a bargain it was.’ Joseph to James: ‘you don’t have to float around Narragansett Bay for a living.’ And again: ‘Come on, James! Seize the day!’ James retires to his room: ‘The whole Atlantic Ocean thundered through my head.’ This uncharacteristic sentence goes over the top, as if to register a James Dean adolescent turmoil. The model smoothing away at her body is more Watkins’s line: an accurate and graphic simplicity and sparseness.

The section that follows consists of a scene where a girl of Joseph’s embarrasses him, before his father, by mentioning that he has been representing his father’s boat as a cruise ship. It might seem that we are once more being asked to think that floating around Narragansett Bay in search of fish is a more wholesome pursuit than the kind of thing that tends to be done on land. But the father is made miserable by the alleged misrepresentation, and the sources of that misery, a misery James has yet to experience, may include the thought that not all fishing voyages are wholesome.

Patrick McGrath’s first book, which has only just managed to precede his second in British bookshops, has 13 ornate horror stories. Hands sprout from heads, pith-helmets are thereby overturned, pernicious anaemiacs drink the blood of travellers at an inn, nuclear war is a cannibal feast, an angel decomposes, a scholar plummets from the tower of a mildewed boarding-school. Ruthless stuff, reminiscent of that poor Billy who fell in the fire and was burned to ashes, and, on occasion, of the cartoons and captions of Charles Addams and Glen Baxter, set, respectively, in the raven-dark American 19th century bequeathed and bequothed by Poe, and in a world of, among others, Empire-building public schoolboys charged with a sinister gung-ho. For some people, the Empire has evidently become a decor which features, for instance, a clearing in the jungle where one pale face is admonishing another: ‘I’d shoot your shorts off, Carruthers, were you ever to breathe a word of this.’ Or some such caption.

Gothic ground, then, with access to Grand Guignol and to the British Empire and the English country house. For Patrick McGrath, the Gothic is characterised by ‘decay, by a movement towards death’. The spectacle of ‘a culture that is fading out gives a lovely feeling of decadence’: hence his fatal falls, slit throats, danks and mulches. For his publisher, the Gothic has been raised, by McGrath, to the status of literature. The tradition has often been able to raise itself, one might object – in the act of repeating itself and addressing a market; the tradition is rich and various and, by now, ancient. But McGrath is certainly contributing to one of its principal tendencies. Many of its writers have been keen, as this one is, on allusion, parody and pastiche. The Gothic has in part been about doing what others have done, and knowing it, and showing it, and about being done-in, and about the laughter that can be found in all this. An opening excursus here concerns the priest’s clothes of his moribund scholar, soon to make a mulch of himself: ‘it’s been suggested that since the collar is worn backwards, ought not the same to be done with the trousers? The idea is less absurd than it may at first appear, for the Catholic priest, if not his Protestant colleague, is bound by a very strict vow of chastity and has little call, urination excepted, for a system of buttons the sole function of which is to permit the member to be extracted with ease and rapidity from its subsartorial crypt.’

The Gothic long ago gained entrance to depictions of the English country house, where telegrams used to fly to the outposts of Empire, where interlopers are detected and murder is rife, and where imitation is rife – to the point where satire and its objects have sometimes seemed to coalesce, and the genre has seemed to satirise itself. Wodehouse may be thought to be alluding to Agatha Christie when he has someone say: ‘I’m speaking from an undersized hamlet in Hampshire called Marsham-in-the-Vale.’ But he or some adjacent joker of the time might also have written the lines assigned by Agatha Christie to a character who is exclaiming over the departure together into the wild of two white hunters of opposing gender: ‘My dear man! It’s well known. That trip into the Interior! I’m surprised the woman had the face to accept the invitation.’[*]

McGrath’s allusive novella The Grotesque deals with a country-house murder, and inhabits this generic twilight, where varieties of what used to be known as Camp have flourished. Sir Hugo Coal is a naturalist with a bee in his bonnet about dinosaurs having really been birds, who is reduced for our diversion, by a ‘cerebral accident’, to the condition of a vegetable. This singular first person narrates the story of what he takes to be his persecution by his evil butler Fledge, who he thinks has seduced his wife Harriet and deranged his daughter Cleo by killing her fiancé, whose body has been fed to the pigs. Fledge, he insists, is out to succeed him as lord of Crook Manor. But the squire, a gloomy martinet, is more palpably vicious than his butler. It is not long before we distrust his tale, and are indeed told to do so by the teller: ‘perhaps you think I’m making all this up, perhaps you think these the delusions of a diseased imagination.’

Such warnings are like those issued by the governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, who confesses her ‘dreadful liability to impresssions’. Her warnings have been disregarded by critics who consider that the governess’s ‘authority’ has to be accepted. For other critics, James’s book is a study in delusion. The Gothic novelist John Hawkes has hailed The Grotesque, noting its resemblance to the James, and both works belong to the category of the tale of mystery and imagination which keeps us in uncertainty as to whether or not the narrator can be believed. Since critics are given to fancying themselves detectives, I suppose that controversy may ensue as to what happens in McGrath’s marshy Berkshire backwater. But I can’t imagine that it will rage. This is a well-worded extravaganza which will gladden the Indian summer of those inclined to ‘estivate’ with it (McGrath’s rare word), and which banks on the appetite for black jokes and imaginary horrors, an appetite enhanced, it would seem, by the horrors of the contemporary world. I am deficient in it, I have to add, and should perhaps declare myself an unreliable witness in the matter of McGrath’s macabre. I can’t seem to recognise, though it would appear that some Americans can, the culture and atrophy he sees himself as describing, and am left with the mostly friendly feeling that the stories he writes and the stories he writes about can look very like descriptions of themselves.

[*] The stories quoted from are among those chosen by Thomas Godfrey for his anthology Country House Murders (Michael O’Mara, 339 pp., £12.95, 21 September, 0 948397 59 4).