Books: A fast track to the devil
Sunday 11 April 1999
by Robert Irwin
Dedalus pounds 14.99
It Is 1967 and, as London swings Peter, the hippy narrator of Robert Irwin's (Dedalus pounds 14.99), a day-glo comic commentary on the high season of psychedelia, swings with it. His typical daily routine involves rising late, experimenting in the afternoon with various questionable drugs with his friend Mr Cosmic, spending the night dancing to the Incredible String Band at the club Middle Earth, then crashing out to the films of Kenneth Anger. His only fear is growing old.
For as well as enjoying all the new-found favours of the permissive society, Peter is taking a walk on the wild side of the hippy revolution. He and his friends have signed up as initiates with the Black Book Lodge, a group of black magic devotees based in Swiss Cottage, who were once connected to Aleister Crowley's group, the Ordo Templi Orientis. As Peter submits to the various disciplines, it's soon apparent that they have big plans for him, fast-tracking him along the Path of Enlightenment. Alas, the news that he has an imminent hot date with Satan is not as welcome as it might first appear.
Written with a sharp comic eye for the absurdities and pretensions of its time, is a comedy with a serious purpose. The novel is in the form of a diary which Peter, as a new initiate in the Lodge, is obliged to keep. But he emerges as the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, for as well as an apprentice Satanist he is also an apprentice sociologist who has infiltrated the black magic circle to research his PhD. His true standard texts are not Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbalah Denudata, but Berger and Luckman's The Social Construction of Reality. When he later discovers that the Lodge believe him to be no less a figure than the reincarnation of the "Great Beast", Aleister Crowley himself, he realises that - like the unfortunate sorcerer's apprentice - he has sought to exploit powers which are beyond his control.
is the sort of comic novel that gets called a "romp", but it possesses an underlying melancholy that points to a moral seriousness beneath the comedy. Irwin's gleeful name-checking of the cultural minutiae of the summer of '67 can at times be a little studied, but his narrative succeeds as a vivid evocation of the carnivalesque revolution that was the 1960s. Its final chapter reveals how the youthful zeal of Peter ebbed into bourgeois conformity as he gave drugs, magic and revolution for a well-paid job in the City. is a prankish celebration of a time when the social, sexual, political and alchemical revolution seemed only a chord-change away, a gloriously funny extended postcard from a world turned upside down.
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