Review: Playing Chicken With Thanatos by Díre McCain (Apophenia Books)

I had the great and rare privilege of reading a manuscript version of this book some time ahead of its final draft and subsequent publication. Then, it had a different working title and a number of changes would follow which made tracing some of the identities of the real-life characters who populate the book rather more difficult. But even in its not-quite complete stage, I was struck by a number of things, not least of all the vibrancy of the narrative, the immediacy of it all, how relatable and accessible the narrator was.

Now, I’ve known the author – virtually, at least, and over Skype – for a number of years: under the auspices of co-founders Díre McCain and D M Mitchell, Paraphilia Magazine generously published my work from the very first issue at a time when no-one else would (a situation that continues, if the truth be known) and have been immensely supportive through the years, long before I clambered aboard as a contributing editor. Díre also graced the Clinical, Brutal anthology I edited for Clinicality Press in 2010 with a piece that was stunning, not to mention truly brutal. So I had an inkling of her abilities as a writer, and indeed of her turbulent formative years. But none of this could have really prepared me for her autobiographical novel.

It’s everything you want from a novel: the narrator drags you along on the journey: at times you sympathise, at others, not so much, but that’s how it is with friends, you take the rough with the smooth. It’s the raw honesty of Díre’s narrative, delivered in a strong, individual voice, that’s so compelling and so human that means you forgive, and you worry about what will happen, you’re there in the moment.

It’s also the fact that however bad things get, however badly she’s treated and however low she sinks, she never plays ‘the victim’, and herein lies the book’s greatest strength: she just tells it straight, and never uses sensationalism to detail sensational events. In this way, Playing Chicken With Thanatos doesn’t sit with the contemporary vogue for memoir, but instead belongs to a strain of classic American autobiographical reportage: Bukowski’s Post Office springs to mind; Jack Black’s You Can’t Win; Burroughs’ Junky, and from over the pond, Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho and Terry Taylor’s Baron’s Court, All Change. What all these books share is an episodic approach to storytelling and a lack of pretence.

There are moments that are utterly terrifying, and the happy-go-lucky easy rollin’ of teen experimentation with whatever substances are on offer takes a turn into extremely dark territories, and the later sections of the book are indeed harrowing. But it’s by no means a depressing book: even through the bleakest sections, the way the words simply flow is a joy, and the author’s sharp intellect and extensive vocabulary set Playing Chicken With Thanatos leagues apart from any drug-addled confessional. And, despite placing a clear distance between her past and present, at no point does Playing Chicken With Thanatos become a vehicle for anti-drug rhetoric, high moralisation or preaching: the fact Díre doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence – or mar the narrative – with such interjections is another aspect of what makes this book such a great read.

It’s from a purely objective mindset that I say that this book is special, bursting with life and emotional resonance and that for these reasons I give it my strongest recommendations. So do as the preface bids: ‘fasten your fucking seatbelt and hold the fuck on….’

 

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Link: http://www.paraphiliamagazine.com/diremccain/playing-chicken-with-thanatos/

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

Reviewed: Baron’s Court, All Change by Terry Taylor (New London Editions, 2012)

As Stewart Home emphasises in his introduction, Baron’s Court, All Change is something of a lost cut classic. Precisely how it came to disappear from the face of the planet for some forty-odd years is rather difficult to explain, but disappear it did. After its initial publication in 1961 and republication four years later, this first-hand account of the hippest cats on the drug-fuelled London Jazz scene at its most swinging, which drew a readership at the time and has obvious and broad appeal since as a historical work, fell not only out of print but out of memory.

Taylor’s first-person narrative has a conversational quality to it, and while he’s not big on detailed description, with some of the writing appearing rather hurried and a shade rough in the editing, these are actually endearing qualities and he draws vivid, earthy pen-sketches of 1950s suburban life in just a few simple lines.

His teenage frustration with suburban tedium and conformity still resonates now, and while some of the writing has a hurried, pulpy quality and many of the characters are little more than sketched pen-portraits, Taylor’s narrator is multi-faceted and displays a surprising degree of emotional depth. This is one of the book’s real strength, as the narrator portrays life as an insider but also an outsider in different social circles, and reveals the dichotomy between family ties and friendship in what could reasonably be called a ‘coming of age’ tale with a real warmth.

Some of the lingo is as priceless as it is necessarily dated, and so many of the cats are digging the scene, wigged by all the charge they’re smoking and the swinging tunes that if it had been written thirty years later it would seem parodic. But at the same time, the overall narrative style is remarkably contemporary and is striking in just how fresh it seems, and Taylor’s turn of phrase is credible and naturalistic in a colloquial way (for example, after an argument with his mother, the narrator immediately feels guilty, and writes ‘I felt like a right cunt’).

The insight Baron’s Court gives into the drug culture of the period is also illuminating, and while most of the characters are strictly hash smokers (the book could almost as readily have been called Baron’s Court, All Charge), LSD does receive a mention (the first in a work of literature) and heroin also features prominently.

‘Junkies fascinated me from the start and I found out all I could about them… His thing isn’t a kick, it’s a way of life,’ recounts the narrator around halfway through, at the same time echoing Burroughs’ line ‘Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.’ I can’t help but wonder how much information would have been available about junkies at the time, and would contend it’s not unreasonable to assume that Taylor had read Burroughs’ debut novel Junkie, published in 1953 in the US with a first UK edition, published by Digit Books of London in 1957. The text may not have been widely known, but hipsters have, as Baron’s Court reminds us, always been two steps ahead of the trend.

At a couple of hundred pages in length, Baron’s Court is a quick and straightforward read, and without doubt this is one of its great achievements. Whereas so many other books on drugs and drug culture are dry and unappetising and judgemental or otherwise agenda-driven, Taylor’s novel is vibrant, lively and above all entertaining.

 

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