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Review: American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, By Iain Sinclair


Having for more than 50 years travelled mentally in Stateside realms of literary gold, Iain Sinclair trekked round North America in person in 2011 “hoping to reconnect with the heroes of my youth”. These included the Beats Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs, among other mavericks and rebels whose artistic visions burgeoned, coast to coast, in avant-garde hothouses of the 1950s such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina where the new leading (albeit then underground) lights of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, and their ilk were kindled.

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Sinclair remembers “From the moment of reading [Kerouac’s] Maggie Cassidy in Wales, when I was researching the life and mythology of Dylan Thomas ... a process of twinning and twisting and overlaying began to evolve. Kerouac grew up hearing the French-Canadian patois, as I was attuned to Welsh as the first language of my mother and of the small mining town as I moved around it.” From early on, Sinclair identified with these writers’ preoccupations with breaking new ground – simultaneous in Kerouac with close attachment to his family and the boondocks mill-town of his upbringing in Lowell, Massachussetts, and in Olson with his life-long roots and rootlings around the nearby fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts. American Smoke quotes them all, sometimes with quote-marks and attribution, sometimes not. Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” are invoked: “Swimming in a sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation.” Sinclair’s own style, though touched by this and other Beat/Black Mountain poetics, has remained more consciously crafted and frequently halting, perhaps partly due to his involvements in film-making. He amasses his twinnings, twistings, and overlayings in short phrases and sentences, often with one or more full stop per line. His ebullient evocation of Edward Burra’s paintings is fairly typical: “Feathers and fruits in ornate glass coffins. Voodoo eyes made from bottle-stops. Zoot-suit skeletons fleshed in labial folds. Barbiturate jazzers eating their own tongues in El Greco delicatessens. Delicious fur-collared Harlem whores dealing tarot cards in all-night cafeterias.” 

Sinclair’s loosely digressive propensities have been likened to Paul Klee’s aesthetic of “taking the line for a walk”, but my impression from his now voluminous mytho-geographic oeuvre is of a man taking his walks themselves for a walk, closer to Saul Steinberg. American Smoke’s abrupt jumps from inner monologue to documentary bulletins, through fast forwards and multiple flashbacks, kaleidoscoping time and place, will turn off readers who gave up after only a few pages of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Thus even in a rare half-dozen consecutive pages of swinging narrative which revisits Sinclair’s first film, made in London in summer 1967, the refractions zig-zag and zoom everywhichway: “When I drove Ginsberg across town in my battered red Mini, the youthful tribes, having no clear sense of who he was – a bearded face from TV screens in other people’s houses, from tabloid Hyde Park dope-rally headlines – rapped on the roof, leant in at the side window, with daffodils and peace signs. Celebrity as a shattered crystal. William Blake our contemporary. London relents, in cycles of mesmerised communality: free concert, royal wedding or royal funeral, riot. Break the glass. Loot, trash. Ding dong! The witch is dead. Burn down shops and warehouses. Episodes of euphoria alternate with long-suppressed rage. Before the Swiss banks resume normal service.”        

At times, maybe seeking to reincarnate the techniques of Jackson Pollock or the Surrealists, Sinclair slaps on the language impasto so fast and thick as to cruelly distort the innocuous activities of such beauteous forces of wildlife as woodpeckers. They allegedly “grind like hand-cranked drills performing prefrontal lobotomies”. Whilst sharing Sinclair’s intergenric aspirations, after para upon para in these contorted veins, I gradually found myself in league with the Dr Johnson who deplored the way, in Metaphysical Poetry, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.”

Much to his credit, at the close of his quest for the so-called “End of the Light”, Sinclair acknowledges “the futility of my American tourism, this incontinent expenditure of words”. Then again, intrepid voyager, it has not been entirely futile, nor anything like complete incontinence. Your book gives generously of, as that other Dylan sang, “what you have gathered from coincidence”. And there is much else in American Smoke exhaling universally clean airs and redemptive graces. Please go on writing; many will be reading you, forever on the lookout for literature and lives that accept their limitations, yet go on working to overcome them. Journeying, as Beckett wrote, to “fail better”.