Paperback reviews: From The Haunted Life: The Lost Novella, by Jack Kerouac to The Drone Eats With Me, by Atef Abu Saif

Also After Me Comes the Flood, by Sarah Perry, Drum Taps, by Walt Whitman and The Zig Zag Girl, by Elly Griffiths

David Evans
Friday 31 July 2015 16:41
Beat combo: Jack Kerouac in Greenwich Village in 1958
Beat combo: Jack Kerouac in Greenwich Village in 1958

The Haunted Life: The Lost Novella, by Jack Kerouac, Edited by Todd F. Tietchen - Penguin, £9.99 ***

Go Set a Watchman may be selling by the million, but Harper Lee’s publishers will have to do some more rummaging in the archives if they’re to catch up with Jack Kerouac’s. Several “rediscovered” texts by the prolific (and profligate) Beat writer have emerged over the past decade or so, including Orpheus Emerged, And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks… (co-authored with William Burroughs) and The Sea is My Brother. And now we have The Haunted Life, an early novella “mysteriously lost” in 1944. (Not much of a mystery, really; Kerouac probably just left the manuscript in a cupboard in Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia University dorm room.)

At the book’s centre is Peter Martin, a young romantic modelled partly on Kerouac himself (the character was to appear again in in Kerouac’s Thomas Wolfe-ish first novel, The Town and the City). Peter is enjoying one last summer as a college student in Lowell, Massachusetts; he hangs out with his childhood friends, romances a local girl, and swims to keep fit. But he has premonitions of a darkness to come. America looks likely to be dragged into the Second World War, and so the warm afternoons are heavy with a sense of foreboding.

The languorous atmosphere is nicely caught and there are some lovely descriptive passages (“soft squares of gold light falling from parlor windows into green lawns”). But there’s awkward dialogue and much inelegant variation. It’s clearly the undeveloped torso of a larger work, and this edition comes padded out with an amusingly Pooterish introduction (“On the Road was the perfect literary accompaniment to the passage of the Federal-Aid Highways Act of 1956”) and a selection of Kerouac juvenilia including letters and diary entries. Taken as a whole, the volume is worth reading for what it reveals about Kerouac’s development as an author. In his early days he would agonise over the mot juste, whereas his later “spontaneous prose” would parp from the typewriter like notes from a jazz trumpet.

After Me Comes the Flood, by Sarah Perry - Serpent’s Tail, £7.99 ****

Sarah Perry’s fine, strikingly-accomplished first novel tells the story of John Cole, who decides to leave his home in London on a sudden impulse. When he breaks down on a rural road, he approaches an old house in search of assistance – to his surprise, the inhabitants seem to be expecting him.

He has stumbled on a community of troubled souls, formerly patients at a genteel psychiatric clinic. The crumbling manor is overlooked by a reservoir, and one resident fears the walls will crack, deluging them all. As John learns more about the place the story builds into a searching exploration of difficult truths and consoling fictions.

Perry drip-feeds narrative information, maintaining the tension without provoking sighs of frustration in the impatient reader – a difficult trick that many first-time novelists fumble. She also has a knack for descriptive prose: Seaweed hanging from rocks is “a fine dark lacework … like cobwebs in a forgotten room,” a toad creeps past on a garden path, “pulse throbbing in its stomach and its butter-coloured eyes rolling thanks.” Watch this writer: words have a way with her.

Drum Taps, by Walt Whitman, Edited by Lawrence Kramer - New York Review of Books, £9.99 *****

In 1865 Walt Whitman published Drum Taps, a collection of poems based on his experience working as a nurse in an army hospital during the Civil War. In later years he worked most of the poems into his ever-expanding masterwork, Leaves of Grass, but cut and reorganised the selection in such a way that blunted the sharp edge of Drum Taps’ war scenes.

This new edition restores the original, more unsettling version of the collection. It’s suffused with a humane concern for the individual buffeted by the winds of history (“quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither … of politics, triumphs, battles, deaths – what at last finally remains?”). Very different from Whitman’s ecstatic “Song of Myself” mode, these poems anticipate the bleak verse that was to arise in response to the First World War.

The Drone Eats With Me, by Atef Abu Saif - Comma Press, £9.99 ****

In July 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, an offensive in Gaza in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The bombing campaign lasted 51 days; 2145 Palestinians were killed (including 578 children) and over 11,000 were injured.

The Drone Eats With Me, comprised of diary entries written during the onslaught by Atef Abu Saif, a writer and lecturer from Jabalia Refugee Camp, eloquently tells the human story behind the awful statistics. Saif describes his efforts to keep his family from danger, and the death and destruction that surrounds them.

Chillingly, he evokes the ordinariness of war to Gazans, how it becomes part of everyday life. Sitting with friends smoking a shisha pipe, Saif hears “the inevitable whir of a drone, sounding so close it could be beside us. It’s like it wants to join us for the evening and has pulled up an invisible chair.”

The Zig Zag Girl, by Elly Griffiths - Quercus, £7.99 ***

Brighton, 1950: Detective Edgar Stephens is investigating a grisly murder. A body of a woman has been found cut into three pieces and stuffed into boxes at the train station. The bizarre case reminds Edgar of a conjuring trick, “The Zig Zag Girl,” whose inventor, Max Mephisto, served with him during World War Two in a mysterious army unit called The Magic Men. Together, DI and magician explore Brighton’s seedy showbiz world in search of the killer.

Elly Griffiths’s crime novel is hamstrung by a slow pace and some rather clichéd characterisation (a detective who is obsessed with crossword puzzles; a haranguing, incredulous boss; a vengeful femme fatale). But her writing has a sly, macabre wit. In the morgue the victim’s legs “lay primly side by side, still clad in flesh-coloured stockings, cut off mid-thigh as if by a prudish censor.”

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