Wednesday, November 13, 2013

{reviews} bleak books: barnard, west, block

Whoa, so... 
                                       with reviewing. 

I'll start with three books offering a bleak - but more or less amusing - look at the seedier side of the lives of academics, journalists, and, er, hit men.

Robert Barnard Death of an Old Goat (1974)

Professor Wickham was giving a tutorial. Or rather, he was being given one. Every year he put Hardy as late in the term as possible, hoping that by then his first-year students would have become reasonably chatty. This was because he never could be quite sure which Hardy novel it was he had read. Whichever it was, it had left on his mind a vague impression of doom and landscape, but nothing much else remained.
This is a very funny book about academia and country Australia. Barnard (who died this year) has a brilliant eye for the difficult life facing the second-rate Oxbridge academic exiled to an uncomfortable and ugly rural university ("Even the Queen had managed to avoid it on most of her visits to Australia, and there were few places in Australia of which that could be claimed.") of the type which sprang up in Australia from the 1950s onwards. 

The 'old goat' is Professor Belville-Smith, an elderly Oxford don on a lecture tour of the provinces. He is a typically dry academic figure, full of snobbish distaste - and "senile malice" - for the colleagues he encounters ("tut-tut[ting] mentally at their vowel-sounds and their shirts"); and no one is particularly looking forward to listening to him either, given he "had been delivering that lecture since 1922" (!). But it would seem that the Old Goat knows something about one of the academics he encounters, and what he knows will lead to his brutal death... 

The crime was fairly easy to figure out, but this book was elevated above the ordinary for me by Barnard's absolutely wicked sense of humour about the snobbishness of Australian academia ("This is what one gets for employing Adult Education lecturers who got their degrees at Leeds, thought Wickham grimly.") and the rural 'squattocracy' who provided the social background to all the university's activities ("'Just like the Wickhams to let the drink run out,' said Mrs McKay, a little tipsily, to Mrs Lullham. 'They’re only academics, after all, however much they try to hide it.'"). 

The actual crime, and the inexperienced macho racist cop assigned to solve it, were far less interesting than the setting and eccentric characters who-[might have]-dunnit. (I discovered this book thanks to clothes in books.)

Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

"Perhaps I can make you understand. Let's start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he's tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator."
Ouch. What a book. Like being mentally excoriated with a wire brush. Like the best sort of totally black satire. No glimmer of relief, no hint of light, and certainly no hint of escape in here. But also funny - well, sort of funny. Uncomfortable, ghastly funny... 

What hope is there for the writer of the lonely hearts column ("the priests of twentieth-century America") in Depression America? Alcoholic, depressed, unloved and unlovable ("his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat"), prone to fighting, poor at grasping cues, misunderstood, self-defeating ("he stumbled purposely, so that she would take his confusion for honest feeling"), numb from suffering ("more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife"), doomed... 

There's a lot going on here about the body too that I think I haven't properly grasped (when I wikipedia-ed it, apparently it is "Bergsonian" - I am in no way enlightened. Also existential. And Expressionist. Hmmm.). How can something so horribly bleak also be funny? 

A classic: I'm glad I've finally read, but oh how miserable I felt after I finished.

Lawrence Block Hit Man (1998)

He took the exit for the mall and found a parking place, taking careful note of where it was so he could find it again. Once, a couple of years ago, he had parked a rental car at a mall in suburban Detroit without paying attention to where he’d parked it or what it looked like. For all he knew it was still there.
A likeable hit man? A dog-loving stamp-collecting likeable hit man in need of a good psychiatrist? The 'voice' of Block's professional killer is just wonderful - sort of pensive, thoughtful, idealistic, melancholy, desperate to feel needed - a 'good' man despite his terrible day job. This book is a series of short stories ostensibly about John Keller's assignments, but really about what has made him the man he is today. If you like slowish little polished gems (someone sweetening a coffee "stirred it long enough to dissolve marble chips") about moral ambiguity, then these are for you.
He did that sometimes. Looked up his name in the phone books of strange cities, as if he might actually find himself there. Not another person with the same name, that happened often enough, his was not an uncommon name. But find himself, his actual self, living an altogether different life in some other city.
Lawrence Block died this year too (I see a theme here). This is the first of his books I've read, but I'm very keen to read more now. (I found this book thanks to belle, book and candle.)


Note [27/11/2013]: Brona remind me that I should link my Barnard post to her wonderful AusReading Month. Please do visit her blog for links to many, many interesting posts on Australian books and writers.


  1. Death of an old goat sounds just up my street - but then I suppose I'm a bit of an old goat...

    1. I think it taps into the Old Goat in all of us!

  2. Miss Lonelyhearts is one of those books I've always meant to read, thank you for reminding me to look out for a copy!

    1. Apart from the humour, another saving grace is that it is pretty much novella-sized, if you're looking for a not-too-long miserable read!

  3. I was just reading about the film version of Miss Lonelyhearts, which I think is a lot less bleak than the novel (as often happens with conversion to film). I have a vague memory of Lawrence Block - I think I'd like to read this!

    1. I imagine it would adapt pretty well, as it is quite slap-sticky, and that would definitely improve its bleakness. I shall keep an eye out for it.

  4. I've always been drawn to novels about academia but, since finishing Stoner recently, it may be becoming an obsession! Must look into Death of an Old Goat (love the title, too) - thanks.

    1. Me too, especially books in which academics behave badly! I really must read Stoner - tho' I fear it may fit all too well into my 'bleak reads' category.

  5. The Block sounds excellent, and I don't mind slow stories like that (though the coffee must be cold by that time!) The others are appealing too, especially the Barnard for the comedy.

    1. It's sort of sad discovering a new writer because they've just died. One knows that one's discovery of the back-catalogue will be finite. But fortunately between the two of them there is quite a big collection to explore.

  6. Interesting and full of variety. Dark books definitely need to be read - we need bleakness as well as lightness.

    1. Oh I do agree, though I seemed to be on a bleakness roll when I read these three!

  7. They all sound like they have a lot to offer! Thanks for posting on all three of them. I'm behind on book reviews, too. It just happens!

    1. I've been very slack lately, so I sort of think this is cheating. Next thing I'll be doing 140 character reviews! (Tho' I suspect that is actually harder rather than simpler.)

  8. Adding Death of an Old Goat to my list!

    1. I hope you enjoy it - I'm looking forward to reading more of his work, and luckily there's a lot to choose from!

  9. Death of An Old Goat sounds good! Fun title (as long as no actual goats were involved!). And I do enjoy a wicked sense of humour every now and then. ;)

    1. He has a really distinctive Australian 'voice', even when he's pinning down his Oxbridge academics. Some elements - the cop, opinions on Aborigines, etc. do date it, but it is a very funny book.

  10. I hadn't heard of any of these books (quietly slaps wrist*) but will definitely add The Old Goat to my list - I'm already curious to know which rural uni they are referring to!!
    It kind of relates to the cultural cringe phenomena that came up in Dancing on Coral too.
    Dont forget to add this post to the AusReading Month link :-)

    1. Thanks Brona - will do! It was so obviously based on a real rural uni, with all the stereotypes (some of which definitely still exist!) like the ugly modernity of 60s brickwork, many many gum trees, blazing heat. I was once at a conference in Bendigo just like that in the height of summer. Barnard's is somewhere north of Sydney, I think.


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