Apologies for the lack of blog posts and for taking so long with these reviews (sadly not the only reviews I’m backed up on) — things have been hectic.
You Were Never Really Here
By Jonathan Ames
Out now from Pushkin Vertigo, £4.99 paperback
Slick, speedy, and as bluntly traumatic as the hammer its protagonist wields, You Were Never Really Here is another entry from Pushkin’s cracking Vertigo imprint. Author Jonathan Ames (creator of telly programme Bored to Death and author of Wake Up, Sir!) is, his publicity says, “celebrated not only for his comic sensibilities and devotion to the absurd but for his lurid attraction to inner demons.”
The latter is showcased in this adrenalin-filled story that moves as swiftly as a bullet to its grisly conclusion. Joe is an ex Marine and an ex FBI agent who’s “witnessed things that cannot be erased”. Some of them occurred at the hands of his violent father, in the home Joe’s been forced to return to, where his elderly mother joylessly ekes out her days.
By trade Joe is a fixer, working off grid on the fringes of the underworld, where he mainly rescues girls from sex traffickers. When a top politician’s daughter is kidnapped and winds up working in a Manhattan brothel, he’s sent after her. Naturally nothing goes to plan, and an impressive (graphic) body count amasses over these 92-pages.
Joe’s an alienated, nihilistic anti-hero straight out of central casting, but drawn in crisp, sharp lines. A legacy of his brutal childhood is his belief that he is the reason why bad things happen. He effaces himself to minimise his impact on the world.
The story’s set in the present day but feels like a norish 40s film, and it’s not surprising to learn that Hollywood’s already on the case, with the director of We Need to Talk About Kevin and actor Joaquin Phoenix attached.
This is an enjoyable way to spend an hour, though at times the author tells more than he shows. It clings so tightly to familiar conventions that I wondered if it wasn’t designed as a sophisticated Chandler parody. Either way it’s a taut little diversion.
By Vicki Baum
Translated by Basil Creighton, and revised by Margot Bettor Dembo
Out now from NYRB Classics, £9.99 paperback
Find some free time and a comfy chair, and travel back to Berlin circa 1929. Your guide during this spot of time travelling is the accomplished Vicki Baum, and your vehicle is one of the first modern bestsellers, Grand Hotel. It was turned into a Broadway play and then into the 1932 film I’m guessing everyone’s seen, starring both Lionel and John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Greta Garbo, as the ageing ballerina who wants to be left alone. (It won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.)
According to the new introduction by Noah Isenberg, Grand Hotel was Baum’s tenth novel, but the first translated into English. It was an immediate success which, she wrote, she “could never live down.” By her own description, Baum was a “a first-rate second-rate author” — an assessment I’m disinclined to agree with, based on this novel. I’m happier joining critics of her day who called this “brilliant”.
Baum collected half a lifetime’s worth of observations, mixed in a couple of engaging newspaper stories and healthy dashes of imagination and skill, with wonderful results. She writes from multiple perspectives, uses authorial asides, moves a large cast of distinct characters around skilfully, and draws readers through the twisting, turning corridors of the book as if we were sitting on well-oiled luggage trolleys.
As a representation of the larger world, a hotel makes a excellent microcosm — so many varied events of life and death happen here, and so many pass through. No one, she says, leaves unchanged. Then at night, “the doors closed throughout the hotel. Everyone locked himself in behind double doors and each was left alone with himself and his secrets.”
The cast includes Dr Otternschlag, whose face and psyche were destroyed during World War I. He is alone and lonely, forgotten by a world that disgusts him, muttering, “It’s ghastly. This is no life. No life at all. Nothing goes on.” He reads of epic disasters in the papers and it doesn’t move him. That, too, is nothing. The doctor takes morphine, keeping enough extra stashed to facilitate an exit when he’s ready.
There’s ballerina Madame Grusinskaya, pushing her exhausted body to perform, but playing to smaller and smaller houses and fewer ovations. She posses valuable jewels which have caught the eye of Baron Gaigern, the handsome cat burglar, who turns both male and female heads, so striking are his appearance and gentlemanly demeanour. His tragedy is that he’s not a very good thief, and has no other profession.
Kringelein, the clerk, has escaped the provinces, fleeing a parsimonious shrew of a wife and his tyrannical employer. A terminal diagnosis from his physician inspires him to empty his bank accounts, cash in an inheritance, and borrow against his life insurance to live out his final weeks in unaccustomed style. It’s too bad, then, that he finds his boss staying at Grand Hotel as well. General Manager Preysing (of the Saxon Cotton Company) is in town to oversee a crucial deal. He’s a careful man who becomes increasingly careless as the story proceeds.
Hard as nails Miss Flamm, the typist, dreams of breaking into movies, and has few qualms about sharing her killer body — for the right price. She laughs at the notion of true love, and describes sex with Preysing as “like having a tooth filled by a singularly incompetent dentist.” Still, she holds something of herself in reserve, refusing to call him “darling” no matter how much he begs.
There are also a host of hotel employees with smaller but no less crucial roles to play.
Baum excels at revealing her characters through specific details — Preysing’s shaving ritual, Gaigern’s inappropriate navy blue trench coat — and doesn’t shy from making acerbic comments about their self deceptions, or noting the sorts of hypocritical mores that make it improper for Preysing to allow his secretary into his room to work, but entirely acceptable for him to take a room for her — which the hotel manager shrewdly ensures is accessible through an adjoining door.
Over the course of just a day or two people ricochet off one another like billiard balls and lives are irrevocably altered, some for better, many for worse.
Baum writes, “For, long or short, Life is what you put into it. Two full days may be longer than forty empty years.” And one pitch perfect novel may be more enthralling than forty lesser offerings. Grab hold of this. It’s a gem.