Last Stop Salina Cruz, By David Lalé

The art of getting lost revisited

Arthur Cravan was a poet, conman and catalyst for Dadaism. A cousin of Oscar Wilde, Cravan, whose real name was Fabian Lloyd, travelled to Paris and Barcelona, to New York, then across to the west coast of America and down into Mexico where he eventually disappeared. Along the way he would achieve notoriety as a boxer; he proved inspirational to key artists of the period, including Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia; women fell for his brute charm, little knowing they were likely to be cruelly manipulated. His was a magnetic, charismatic personality, larger than life, by reputation if not always in the flesh.

If this is beginning to read more like a non-fiction review than a notice for a novel, David Lalé's debut is most unlike a novel. It is, rather, a biography wrapped around a short story. There is certainly a fictional strand to the narrative and it a very interesting one. The narrator is a depressed young man coming to terms with the death of his father and fleeing from a crisis with his partner. A Cravan enthusiast, he sets off in the footsteps of his hero, encountering poverty and deprivation, much as Cravan had.

In a cheap hostel, the narrator meets an "effete" trilby-wearing Englishman called Martin who is obsessively taking notes for a "travel novel". Martin declares, "My gimmick is a kind of ironic gimmick, sort of a post-gimmick gimmick." Last Stop Salina Cruz proceeds like Martin's travel novel, its storyline determined by the wanderings of Cravan, whose journeying was partly inspired by the need for flight – in his case from the draft. Cravan's friend, the writer Blaise Cendrars, "joked that Cravan believed the [First] World War was being waged against him alone, just to spite him".

Lalé writes attractive, readable prose that occasionally possesses a translucent, cinematic beauty. Hitch-hiking from Paris, the narrator is picked up by a North African: "Driving at night felt like being inside a computer game... sliding through the passageways of bright light, the acute geometries". Lalé avoids sentimentality and the narrator never tries to ingratiate himself with the reader: you'll squirm at his graphic descriptions of haemorrhoids. He is also good on the illusions of travel. Ultimately, the novel's gimmick, tilting the balance heavily in favour of biographical material, slightly undermines Lalé's obvious gift for narrative.