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Joe Speedboat, By Tommy Wieringa
Life as a one-armed wrestler
Wednesday 26 August 2009
Although Frankie, the narrator of this novel, is struck dumb when partially paralysed aged 14, he triumphantly comes into his own as an adult both as a one-arm wrestler and as the sexual partner of P.J., the beautiful local girl he has always lusted after. Novels featuring disabled characters still usually go in for generally upbeat endings, as here. But Joe Speedboat is never just another would-be inspirational read about overcoming adversity.
Frankie is a flawed person, often overwhelmed by anger and resentment and in no sense operating as a flagship for other wheelchair users. He also acts as historian and chorus for the isolated, inbred Dutch village where he lives. Frequently flooded, making an uncertain living from scrap yards and mining asphalt, Lomark is not an attractive location. But it is made habitable by a collection of friends who gather around the silent Frankie, chief among whom is Joe Speedboat himself. Coming into the community from outside and re-naming himself in the process, Joe mixes low-level anarchy with home-grown engineering genius of the type that enables him to first build and then fly his own plane.
Life initially remains hard for Frankie, still living with his parents, terminally frustrated and with no obvious future. This state of despair sometimes leaks into the narrative. But once he discovers alcohol and sex, things look up. Frankie records his mordant view of the small-town life around him before moving on to describe organised one-arm wrestling bouts. These take place in low dives across Europe, often in desperate company. Here he is inspired both as a fighter and as a person by the writings of Miyamoto Musashi, a 16th-century Japanese swordsman and author of a classic study of the art of strategy.
Expertly translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Tommy Wieringa's novel offers a rewarding journey into the unfamiliar. It is also witty, thoughtful and surprisingly tender as Frankie comes to realise that he has got a life to live that is still well worth the living.
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