No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015/42: Boxer, Beetle --Ned Beauman

When I am in a stressful situation, I often like to ask myself: what would Batman do in my place? I find Batman so inspiring – his intelligence, his tenacity, his self-sacrifice – that it sometimes makes me slightly tearful. But the trouble is, it’s hard to imagine Batman in a Little Chef. I don’t mean that flippantly: it’s a fundamental problem. Most of the places where I spend most of my life – NHS doctors’ waiting rooms, the local twenty-four-hour corner shop, Happy Fried Chicken, my ex-council flat, the tarmac playground down the road where I go when I want to sit down in the fresh air – seem to distill their peculiarly English ambience from that feeling you get when your mother wipes snot from your nose with her sleeve on the bus. [loc. 1973]

Boxer, Beetle is a dark and occasionally vicious comedy (and a tragedy): it entwines the stories of Kevin Broom, collector of Nazi memorabilia and sufferer of an unpleasant disease, and Seth 'Sinner' Roach, gay Jewish boxer with 'unusual physiology'. Kevin's narrative is contemporary, and frames Seth's story, which is set in the Thirties, in London's East End. Yet the two are intimately connected, by an aristocratic entomologist who admires Hitler, and by Kevin's employer Grublock, who is eager to discover the location of Seth Roach's grave.

This is a tightly-plotted novel: even the most outre details turn out to be germane to the story. Kevin, despite being someone you would absolutely not want to meet in real life (see above under 'unpleasant disease') is oddly likeable: Seth, who lacks social graces and whose dialogue is a stream of profanity, nevertheless seems the most principled character of all. And Erskine's marvellous beetles -- which, at the climax of the novel, reappear in a scene reminiscent of a horror film -- do have standards.

I find I don't have much to say about Boxer, Beetle, despite finding it a very enjoyable (and weirdly educational) read. Beauman gives good description, from East End boxing dens to Futurist conventions and country house parties before WW2. The characterisation is intriguing: the characters are far from stereotypical.

Beauman's appeared on various 'best new / young writers' lists. Boxer, Beetle was his first novel: I think I'd like to read his other work to see if the promise of this book is fulfilled.

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