American smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, By Iain Sinclair: Book review

An Englishman crosses the Atlantic in search of the Beat generation heroes of his youth on a circuitous and magical tour

Iain Sinclair, the laureate of Hackney, has followed in the wake of his 14-century namesake Prince Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney, and crossed the Atlantic, washing up in Gloucester, Mass. in search of the shade of the poet Charles Olson.

Like many a previous emigrant, his journey has been prompted by invasions and enclosures, “the sense of loss and hanging dread” provoked by the London Olympics land-grab. The immediate anxiety for the reader accustomed to Sinclair’s voice, as instantly recognisable as the throb of a black London cab, and as prone to stops, starts and tight-wheelbase turns, is whether it can translate to a new continent.

We needn’t have worried. Strange as it is to find ourselves walking in the author’s company along the edge of the Atlantic rather than the banks of a garbage-choked canal, he is immediately at his old tricks, dissolving the divide between the printed page, celluloid, the flickering magic-lantern of memory and the storm-buffeted, poet-haunted New England streets. 

Sinclair has come in search of the heroes of his youth, the poets and novelists of the Beat generation. His journey is made simultaneously in real time and flashback, as much through stumbled-on VHS tapes, recorded interviews and shoebox files as present-day encounters with survivors of those mythic times. On a previous trip to America for a BBC radio documentary in the 1990s, Sinclair interviewed William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Kathy Acker. Now his box of notes and tapes has vanished. His only chance of rescuing the material is to find the show’s producer, rumoured to be living in Croydon.

Sinclair wanders the streets of the London suburb, taking note of a sex shop and a blind man urinating, until driven by the need to use the facilities himself he enters a department store where he thinks he sees his quarry standing behind a counter. “I don’t say a word. I rush through men’s pyjamas to the lift… If he deserves anything, my former colleague has earned the right to obscurity”. This, we should know by now, is Sinclair’s method: the preferment of magic over logic; advance by retreat. Sure enough, a padded envelope arrives, without a note, containing the lost radio script and the voices of Burroughs and Corso on tape.

Those expecting any straightforward tour of either North America or Beat literature, then, are clearly in the wrong place. However, there are powerful snapshot encounters here: Gary Snyder standing in a clearing in the spot where the poet Lew Welch walked off into the forest and never returned; William Boroughs in his suburban clapperboard house reeking of cats; an extremely drunk Jack Kerouac crawling up the steps to Charles Olson’s apartment over outspread newspapers, encountering a bad review of one of his books on the way.

Other literary legends wander onstage, including Dylan Thomas and Roberto Bolaño. As always in Sinclair we are expected to know these people and to have read their work, just as it is assumed we recognise the film allusions scattered throughout. One of the book’s most arresting motifs is provided by the Nazi architect Albert Speer, interned in Spandau. Pacing the exercise yard he mentally crosses Europe and walks down the west coast of America, a route Sinclair imagines himself retracing. 

Like Speer, Sinclair is engaged in an unending perambulation, a form of travel both real and virtual that doesn’t necessarily require leaving home. Arriving at a Berkeley bookstore owned by an old book-dealing friend, he finds the man has died. The assistant is at that moment cataloguing a title by Iain Sinclair; books on the shelves that have themselves flown the Atlantic contain pencilled prices in his own hand. California is folded into Hackney; the journey swallows its tail.

The poet Cal Shutter writes to Sinclair about his quest in search of the Beats, telling him “You are not an American. You will never understand Americans… Forget it man, you’ll never begin.” In response, Sinclair declares himself “cured of my interests and obsessions”. The many readers who have followed him down the years on his unique and apparently endless voyage of discovery will hope this proves another illusion.

James Attlee’s ‘Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight’ is published by Penguin

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