Posts Tagged ‘1973 Novel’

Saint Jack by Paul Theroux ~ 1973. This edition: Penguin, 1997. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004157-5. 223 pages.

It [to be successful] was my yearning, though success is nasty and spoils you, the successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without the winch of money. If the rich were correct, I reasoned, what choice had they made? Really, was disappointment virtue and comfort vice and poverty like a medicine that was good because it stung? The President of the United States, in a sense the king of the world, said he had the loneliest job on earth; where did that leave a feller like me?

The theatrically convulsed agony of the successful is the failure’s single comfort. ‘Look how similar we are,’ both will exclaim: ‘We’re each lonely!’ But one is rich, he can choose his poison. So strictly off my own bat I gave myself a chance to choose – I would take the tycoon’s agony and forgo the salesman’s. I said I wanted to be rich, famous if possible, drink myself silly and sleep till noon. I might have put it more tactfully: I wanted the wealth to make a free choice. I was not pleading to be irresponsible; if I was rich and vicious I would have to accept blame…

Jack Flowers, failed one-time hippy and now moderately successful ship chandler’s assistant and rather more successful supplier-of-the-six-sexual-desires to sailors, servicemen and tourists visiting Singapore, receives a chilling intimation of mortality when a chance acquaintance of the same age collapses and dies in the bar where Jack has been drinking (mostly but not always after working hours) for the last fifteen years.

Makes a feller think, you know.

And then inspires said feller to write down the story of his life-so-far.

Jack Flowers was born John Fiori, son of Italian immigrants in Boston, and how he ends up in Singapore, living his shadow life as handler of a bevy of willing (that’s the story and he’s sticking to it) Asian prostitutes, is the bare bones of this tale.

Well, Jack has had a lot of cash pass through his hands, but he’s never attained wealthy, though he’s being quite serious when he says he wants to be, and he’s not vicious either, which has a great deal to do with why riches have eluded him.

The self-portrait that emerges (always bearing in mind that the most unreliable narrator can often be the one focussed mainly on himself) is of a basically good man, doing the best he can in the situation he has found himself in. The pimp with a heart of gold, in fact, to turn the cliché upside down.

When Theroux is on his game he writes like a veritable angel. A fallen angel, perhaps, with sooty wings and smutty face, but nonetheless an angel. Saint Jack shows him to be very much on his game. (Pun fully intended.)

This early novel is a sardonically happy thing, and I found myself utterly on the narrator’s side throughout.

Did I say how funny I found this novel? It’s very funny. Especially the tale of the cursed tattoos. (Or maybe better described as tattooed curses.) Anyway, good stuff.

The writer being Paul Theroux, and Saint Jack being concerned with prostitution (though not just with prostitution) you would be correct in assuming that there is a lot about sex in this one. Don’t let that put you off.

10/10.

Oh, yes. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The novel was made into a movie in 1979,  surreptitiously shot on location despite the refusal of the Singaporean officials to give permission and permits. The movie was subsequently banned in Singapore between 1980 and 2006, because of its unflattering depiction of the “bad old days” underbelly of Singapore’s notorious street life, at a time when the civic image-scrubbers were trying to clean things up.

Kind of makes you want to find a copy and watch it, doesn’t it? Just because.

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The Victorian Album by Evelyn Berckman ~ 1973. This edition: Doubleday, 1973. Hardcover. 222 pages.

Rather a good gothic-suspense-supernaturalish-thriller, set in the time of its writing, the early 1970s.

Lorna Teasdale, sixtyish, never married, shares her accommodations and her life with her twenty-something niece, Christabel, who was orphaned at a young age and became Lorna’s adored ward.

The two coexist in perfect harmony, with Christabel doing very well in her calling as an assistant antique dealer/interior decorator – to become a museum curator is her long-term goal – and Lorna working as a much-in-demand private seamstress.

They are getting by nicely, until they are evicted from their London apartment due to its upcoming demolition; new flats are planned for its location. Scrambling to find an affordable place to live in the red-hot housing market – does this sound familiar to anyone? – some things never change! – the two end up leasing the entire first floor of a rundown pre-Victorian house, owned by the dour and sour Mrs Rumbold and her hard-as-nails social-climbing daughter.

Unemployed due to the relocation, Lorna, once the flat renovations are complete, finds herself bored and at loose ends. Giving in to an impulse, she takes advantage of her landlady’s morning shopping routine to snoop about in the attic of the house, and on her first foray returns to her flat with a dusty Victorian-era photograph album, with which she becomes obsessed. Who are the people portrayed, and what are their relationships to each other? To the house itself? And which one  – or ones – of them were involved in the murder-in-this-very-house which Mrs Rumbold has referred to with salacious glee but not much detail?

Channeling the past in a very up close and personal way, Lorna finds herself drawn into a situation in which she feels that other (other-worldly!) forces are at work…

All in the very best, very chilling, gorgeously sardonic Norah Lofts tradition.

Why haven’t I heard of Evelyn Berckman before? She’s good at this genre, if this novel is a fair sample of her style.

And good at other things, too. Check this out, from the dust jacket flyleaf of The Victorian Album:

Very curious now, I looked for more information regarding Evelyn Berckman, and a very few minutes of internet research took me to this, a cheerfully fulsome review at The Passing Tramp blog, in which Berckman is favourably compared to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

This book was in a batch of odds and ends I’d picked up some years ago when I was keeping my bedridden elderly mother supplied with titles to please her in her book-a-day reading habit. I’m not sure if she got to this one, but if she did I’ll bet she liked it, as she was a Rendell/Vine aficionado, and was always up for a well-written but not taking-itself-too-seriously thriller.

I don’t know if I’ll be actively searching out more of Berckman’s titles, but if I see another in my travels I’ll certainly snap it up with anticipation of another diverting read.

An approving 6/10 for this one. Better than I expected it to be is my final verdict.

 

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