Friday, March 18, 2011

Recent Reads - March 2011

The Grass Arena by John Healy

These are notes from the underground – missives from a milieu that doesn’t normally send out letters. The world of the wino. Healy is a phenomenon, going from soldier to boxer to wino to chess virtuoso to award-winning author – and then back to obscurity. The structure is a bit sloppy but these anecdotes from the edge more than compensate. I love the details of their desperate ongoing search for drink. Methylated spirits, surgical spirits, and aftershave were all consumed when the conventional options were unavailable. Then there are the characters including one who was kidnapped by the gypsies and forced to work all day and was tethered to a wagon by chains all night. He also introduced me to the “water on the brain” phenomenon – a condition induced by extreme drinking. A poignant refrain throughout the book is his failure with the girls -notwithstanding his keen interest.

He eventually got fucked around by Faber & Faber when his street persona intruded on the genteel Oxbridge world of Robert McCrum and his chums. He apparently threatened to come visiting with his hatchet if his royalties weren’t paid. They pulped his books and threw him back into the gutter. It’s nice to see him reissued by Penguin Modern Classics and beginning to gain a new audience.

A City Boy by Edmond White

It’s the usual Edmond White autobiography. Look see what a naughty boy I’ve been – again. It’s entertaining but I’ve heard it all before. Also the relentless namedropping begins to get tiresome. Being a distant acquaintance of Susan Sontag is not the ultimate in human achievement. Well written and amiable throughout though.

John Osborne by John Heilpern

Or how the angry young man became an angrier old man. What a great biography this is – and what a monster Osborne was. He played fast and loose with the ladies until he met his match in that termagant Jill Bennett. He spent himself into acute poverty but never let that condition interfere with his champagne life style. He was a great hater and eventually rowed with almost everyone who engaged with him. At his funeral there was a list of people he didn’t want to attend pinned to the gate of the church – these included Fu Manchu (Peter Hall) and Albert Finney. Finney had starred in Tom Jones which made Osborne (who wrote the screenplay) very wealthy for a while - however he sued Osborne when he didn't get his due from the film. He wrote four great plays (Look Back in Anger, Luther, Inadmissible Evidence and The Entertainer) and a host of minor works and screenplays. An incidental delight in this book are the many hilarious examples of Osborne’s invective in letter form.