Monday, February 23, 2015

Fowlers End

Some books you describe. Others, you shove into a person's hands and say, "Trust me. Just start reading."

Gerald Kersh's Fowler's End (1957) is the latter. So let's briefly pretend I'm still a bookseller, and you're a familiar customer. Open it up--skip past the glossary of Cockney slang for now--and start reading. I'll be over here, slowly making my way to the till to ring you up.
Snoring for air while he sipped and gulped at himself, talking between hastily swallowed mouthfuls of himself, fidgeting with a little blue bottle and a red rubber nose-dropper, Mr. Yudenow said to me, "Who you are, what you are, I duddo. But I like your style, what I bead to say--the way you wet about applyig for this 'ere job. Dishertive, dishertive--if you get what I bead--dishertive is what we wat id show biz. Arf a tick, please--I got to take by drops."
Sorry--I said I wouldn't interrupt, but I cant help it. Let's look at this a bit. That string of gerunds--"snoring," "talking," "fidgeting"--and their accompanying plain-old past-tense friends "sipped" and "gulped" give that opening sentence such momentum. We're well into action, described with apt and unusual verbs, before we even know the where or what or who. And then, while we're still trying--like Yudenow himself--to catch our breath (and get acclimated to this unusual narrative voice), we are without warning presented with another wholly unusual manner of speaking, an idiom rendered even stranger by what we slowly suss out as a stopped up nose. We're one paragraph in, yet it feels like we're already up to our eyes in oddity. Gerald Kersh has grabbed our lapels.

Paragraph two:
He filled the dropper with some pale oily fluid, threw back his head and sniffed; became mauve in the face, gagged, choked; blew into a big silk handkerchief, and then continued, sighing with relief, "Wonderful stuff. It's deadly poison. But it loosens the head." He showed me the contents of his handkerchief, which might have been brains. "Confidentially, catarrh. Yes, I like the way you went about applying for this 'ere job. Millions of people would give their right 'and to manage one of Sam Yudenow's shows--the cream of the biz, the top of the milk!"
Learning that a character is the sort of person who shows a near-stranger the contents of his used handkerchief . . . well, that tells you a lot in a compact way, no?

Let's keep going. This bit comes from the next page, as Yudenow, who runs a silent cinema where your narrator is applying for a job as a manager, is, unprompted, offering a bit of detail about the job. I'm going to quote at unusual length, because the extensiveness of Yudenow's perpetual monologue is part of the point:
"Can you use your 'ands?"

"Box a little," I said.

"You won't need to--don't worry about that. They don't understand that stuff rahnd Fowlers End. If somebody gets rorty and buggers up the show, so come up be'ind 'im like a gentleman; put a stranglehold on 'is thvoat miv the left arm, pick 'im up by the arse from 'is trousers miv the right 'and, and chunk 'im into the Alley--one, two, three!--in peace and quiet. My last manager but two got punch-drunk, kind o' thing, and lost 'is nerve--tried to clean up the Fowlers End Health and Superman Lague miv a fire bucket, and I was the sufferer. Keep order, yes, but leave no marks. I want my managers should be diplomats. Look at Goldwyn, Look at Katz. Odeons they started miv nickels, not knuckles, and you should live to see your children in such a nice position like they got. Remember, the Pantheon don't cater for royalty, and Fowlers End ain't Bond Street--not just yet it ain't.

"In the first place, everybody's unemployed--which is the opium of the people rahnd here. The rest, so they work in factories--which is the scum. Rahnd the corner is the Fowlers End Pipe Factory. They make gas pipes, water pipes--d'you foller? Well, all these loafers do, instead of making pipes, they make coshes: so they'll get a foot of gas pipe and fill it up with lead. One of them threatens you, don't call the police to give the show a bad name. This is a family theater. Warn him. If he 'its you to leave a mark, then the law's on your side. Put the left 'and rahnd his thvoat, the right 'and in the arse of his trousers, and chunk 'im out. And don't give 'im his money back. That is the opium of the working classes. Stand no nonsense if you want to be a showman. . . . Whereas, there's a mob kids from school, so there's a new idear they got. So they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you 'ave it. Discourage 'em. Threaten to tell their teacher. Lay one finger on 'em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children--and I'm the sufferer. . . . It's nothing; like a lion-tamer, just be cool and nobody'll 'urt you. Remember, this ain't the New Gallery in Regent Street, not already, almost."
Ready to shake Yudenow's hand and take over the management of the Pantheon?

I expect a lot of readers reach the end of that passage, and, exhausted, close the book and quietly back away. But if you're like me, you find the sheer kinetic energy of Yudenow's peculiar voice, with his tics and obsessions, as funny and exhilarating as it is wearing, and utterly captivating. If so, you should seek out Fowlers End posthaste (and thanks be to Valancourt Books for bringing it back into print recently): what I've quoted is what you get, page after page after page of it. Oh, it's not all Yudenow--there are other characters, other voices. But they're all oddities, and most of them obsessives, cranks of one kind or another whose combination of self-absorption and logorrhea leads to cascades of words, passionate outpourings in little need of interlocutors.

There's a plot, of sorts, or rather a couple of them, but they barely raise the book above the level of a picaresque; Kersh makes little pretense to caring about anything beyond watching these lunatics buzz around each other, self-obsessed and yammering. Fowlers End is all about the peculiar power of words, and the pleasures of attending to the nuances of a deformed personal argot. The manic intensity recalls Tristram Shandy, some of the stranger rhapsodies in Moby-Dick, and the explanations from Casi's clients in A Naked Singularity, but its closest spiritual kin are the novels of Charles Portis. Portis's best books are more successful than Fowlers End--at no point in reading Portis did I ever want to put a book down to rest, which I think is inevitable even for a reader who loves Fowlers End--but like Fowlers End they exist largely as vessels for unforgettable voices relating strange obsessions. Portis's cranks are a bit more of the idee fixe sort, and their obsessions are essentially an armor against the world, whereas Fowler's characters are firing a barrage of words into the world to clear a space for themselves. Down at heel in a place luck left long ago, they're using the only tool they have--pell-mell personality poured into words--to try to get back up. Fowlers End is far from serious, but there's nonetheless a moving quality to the tenacity of its characters. Rejection will never, ever take with this crowd, so long as they still have words with which to protest.

Have I sold you? If you're teetering, I recommend digging up a copy and opening it at random. Like so:
"Have you eaten bubble-and-squeak?"

I had. If you are very young and desperately hungry you can eat it practically without nausea. In Soho, in the small hours, the cafe proprietors used to give it away--this being a benevolent way of cleaning their kitchens. It is made as follows: Procure leftover potatoes. Add to them anything you like which, somehow, always happens to be yesterday's cabbage. Take a heavy instrument--any heavy instrument--and beat this mixture without mercy until it is quite flat. Put the resultant cake into a pan which you are heating to burn off coagulations of old fat. Fry until you can no longer see through a blue haze. Then give it to a passer-by. He will, most likely, hurl it into the street, thus saving you the cost of an extra garbage bin. When cold, a portion of bubble-and-squeak can be thrown a great distance, like a discus, and has been known ot inflict grievous bodily harm--for which purpose it is better than brickbats or bottles because, if charged, the thrower can always plead: "I was only offering him a midnight snack." Bubble-and-squeak has been known by various nicknames, such as "poor man's leavings," and "lump-in-the-stomach," and "constipation tart." I did not dare to tell Sam Yudenow that I could write a brochure about bubble-and-squeak and its various uses--I felt that if I did so, he would tell me where to find the pencil and put me to work at once.
A trained salesman, I return to the key question: have I sold you? Oh, good. I'll let another character close the deal, then:
"My cut, if you like, will be: Terms to Be Mutually Agreed. Gentleman's agreement. . . . Happen, by any chance, to have a spare white handkerchief?"


  1. I, too, spend most of my free time reading. That is, when I'm not writing letters, tapping out messages in Morse Code on my radio, or staring out the window. I wasn't familiar with Kersh at all, until I read a story by him in The Big Lizard Book of Locked Room Mysteries. The intro mentioned Fowler's End, and that it appears on many lists as one of the best books of the 20th Century.

    Thanks for putting up this review. Oddly enough, I sought out a review as soon as I'd finished the sentence where you write, "A lot of readers reach the end of that passage..." -- but now I am quite determined to give it a fair read.

  2. That's where I encountered Kersh, too, Emmett--I read that bit in the bio in the Locked Room book and thought, "Well, I can't -not- seek out a novel I've never heard of that is called one of the comic masterpieces of the century." And I'm so glad I did. (That whole anthology has been so much fun: I'm about 250 pages in, reading a story here, a story there, and really enjoying it.)