Archive for June, 2016|Monthly archive page
The studs, femmes and muffins of The Black Lesbian Handbook go into battle…
This review originally appeared on A Penguin a Week.
|Cover design uses still from the MGM movie ‘All Fall Down’.|
“Tomorrow I’m going on a health binge, get some filter cigarettes and start doing push-ups every night. Maybe I’ll do some right now, to make myself sleepy. Because I’ve got about forty-seven big knots in my chest, and they hurt.”
When I pick up an old Penguin I’m hoping for a surprise – something off-beat, long neglected, out of left field, a lost gem. ‘All Fall Down’ delivered.
It’s the first novel from the Detroit writer who went on to write ‘Midnight Cowboy’ five years later in 1965, James Leo Herlihy. It’s a coming of age story in the heritage of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, a decade in its wake. It follows the growth of Clint Williams from an isolated, uncommunicative 14 year old to an emerging adult with the capacity to care and love.
A fair proportion of the story is told through Clint’s diary – it’s like an external hard drive he relies on to compulsively capture memories and documentation from his chaotic family life. He steals his mother’s private letters (outgoing and incoming) to copy into this notebook which he keeps tucked in his trousers, right against his flesh. It’s the one place he controls and to which he can bring some degree of order.
Clint’s hero, his older brother Berry-berry, is absent for much of the story, on his low-life travels around the USA, much of the time just one step ahead of the law. Yet his being has immense gravitational pull on the family. The disparity between what mother, father and little brother hope for from Berry-berry and the real man (in as much as he is grown up) is the source of the all-round disillusionment which engulfs the family.
When the Williams move to a new house across the city in Cleveland, Ohio, the cracks open up. Berry-berry takes off before he’s even spent a night in his new room. The father, a former left-wing activist, spends his time in the basement doing puzzles. The mother immerses herself in domesticity on the ground floor, while Clint eavesdrops from the laundry chute upstairs and records the exchanges in the diary which he “made use of … with an unconscious ease similar to that of walking or feeding oneself”.
Clint, in an attempt to come to the aid of the older brother he idolises, goes on a road trip across the country to the Florida Keys. He loses his innocence along the way when he is sheltered by Shirley, a young tart with a heart, whose inner beauty and profound loss influence Clint for life.
The person who catalyses the final destruction of both the dysfunctional family and their illusions is the unmarried daughter of one of the mother, Annabel’s, friends. Echo O’Brien is a dynamic young woman, very attached to her perfectly preserved 1929 Dodge touring car. Tall and slender, she could, in a parallel universe, have been in the pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Think ‘Gatsby’ and Tennessee Williams for the kind of tension Echo brings into the Williams household as she becomes the object of both Clint’s innocent, tender love and Berry-berry’s careless lust, the latter returned to his home city and the proximity of his family, but living on the edge of town with a dark secret.
Watching Berry-berry live a lie and talk up his hollow, self-centred life, gradually grinds away at Clint’s hopes and illusions. Like Holden Caulfield’s obsession with ‘phoneyness’, Clinton Williams can’t take the lies: “I just stayed there at the table and thought about what big liars we all are”. Berry-berry tells his biggest, most unforgivable lie at the climax of the novel and it is this which finally severs his bond with his once adoring brother. Berry-berry ultimately cares only for himself and loves no-one, not even himself. Clint though has a great capacity and desire to care and cherish. His growth into adulthood is complete with the realisation that “[in] the difference in the love offerings people make to one another, lay the reason for all the pain in the world.”
First published in the U.S.A. 1960. Published in Great Britain by Faber & Faber 1961. Published in Penguin Books 1962.
Picking up from my post in the run-up to the Brexit vote about Democracy, Control & Project Fantasy I see the roots of yesterday’s dark shock as being in the same realm – the fundamental weakness of British democracy due to lack of proportional representation.
David Cameron offered the in/out referendum in January 2013 to appease members of his own party and keep the Conservatives yoked together in the run-up to the May 2015 general election. If the First-past-the-post voting system was not so inimicable to the third party and below, we could be looking at a much fairer and more democratic landscape in the UK.
The tension in the Tory party is down to the fact that it is not really a single party. There could be a centrist conservative party and a more right-wing one.
Likewise on the Left, the Labour Party is forever jumping through hoops to get round the fact it is not really a single party. It too could exist as a Socialist party and another Social Democrat one.
And that would still leave room for a Liberal party in the centre ground, as well as narrower/more focused parties from the Greens to UKIP making up a healthier, more diverse offering.
Instead we are looking at a riven Conservative Party, a leaderless Labour Party, a destroyed Liberal Party and what was a disenfranchised UKIP, whose followers have now taken revenge.
The way many Tories in particular (largely the ones that went on to back the Leave campaign) stifled and undermined the last UK referendum (May 2011) on voting reform was disgusting and ultimately very damaging as yesterday proved.
I’m still absorbing yesterday’s dark news. Keeping these to capture the feeling…
Yesterday’s Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 was a special edition in the wake of the murder of Jo Cox. There was no studio audience and the panel was made up of commentators rather than politicians. What cheered my heart to some degree, in the midst of a moronic and deceitful referendum and a tragic assassination, was that two disparate journalists, Polly Toynbee of The Guardian and Peter Oborne of the Daily Mail, emphasised the desperate need for voting reform and some meaningful form of proportional representation.
I have voted in every election in my adult life – for 34 years – until the recent London mayoral election which I did not turn out for because I didn’t care for either of the main candidates. In those 42 years I have never elected a single person. Because I’m a liberal by nature, though even when I’ve voted otherwise/tactically, as in May 2015, I’ve still made no difference.
In Anita Anand’s Any Answers phone-in after the programme an MP’s chief of staff rang in and threw away that great cliche that in our democracy we “can always vote them out”. But we can’t. I haven’t been able to.
We have a highly overrated ‘democracy’ in which elections have boiled down to become focused on a tiny minority of swing voters in marginal seats.
We have an increasingly disempowering ‘democracy’ in which a party like UKIP gets millions of votes but one seat only, gets three times as many votes as the SNP but 1/56th of the representation in Parliament. How should those millions of UKIP voters feel in the wake of that most depressing election? I’ve no particular sympathy for the UKIP perspective but I don’t believe their supporters’ votes should be without value or real meaning.
As I was walking along the river in Winchester yesterday evening I spotted a Leave campaign poster at the back of an affluent house, with a URL including the words “take control”. I would contend that even if we took back sovereignty from the EU we would continue to have no real control. At least ‘we the people’ would not. We the politicians, many of whom are elected on well under 50% of the vote, indeed many on under 30%, may gain even more unearned control and fundamentally undemocratic power.
UK democracy has been severely wounded and bleeding out long before the horrendous murder of Jo Cox, by all accounts a representative of great integrity, selfless conviction and beautiful character. Her death is tragic. Her killer’s state of mind is sadly poisonous. The referendum debate is toxic with hate and mendacity. I’ll go vote on Thursday – but with a deep sense of disempowerment and little feeling of hope…