Sunday, October 06, 2013

the last book I read

Leading The Cheers by Justin Cartwright.

Dan Silas is at a bit of a loose end; newly single after splitting up with his girlfriend Stephanie, he's also out of a job after the acrimonious dissolution of his lucrative advertising company. So he's grateful for the opportunity for distraction and escape offered by an invitation to his high school reunion in Michigan, as well as being in a position to make a bit of an extended holiday of it.

While many of Dan's old school buddies haven't changed much, at least beyond the inevitable greying and balding and weight gain, some of them have a few surprises in store. Gary Beaner has had some sort of mental breakdown and now, when he isn't having a catatonic interlude, imagines himself to be the reincarnation of a Native American chief called Pale Eagle. Not only that, but Dan's high-school sweetheart Gloria has a few unpalatable revelations for him - not only was their brief relationship (fondly remembered by Dan) less exclusive than he'd imagined (as she was seeing someone else as well at the time), and their quickie on Thomas Jefferson's bed during a school trip to Monticello less fondly remembered by her than by him, but it also led to her becoming pregnant with his child. Not only that, but the resulting daughter grew up to become a young woman and graduate from high school herself, before being gruesomely raped and murdered by serial killer Scott Hollinger. Not only that, but Gloria also reckons that Dan would be ideally placed to go and visit Hollinger in prison to ask him about the murder in the hope of obtaining some sort of "closure".

So some food for thought, there, for sure. And more is provided by Gary, who reckons that Dan can help him retrieve some tribal artefacts from the British Museum when he returns to the UK, "retrieve" in this instance pretty much meaning "steal", of course, however much one might insist that they were stolen from their original custodians in the first place.

So Dan has some reflecting to do on his return to the UK. Could Gloria have been telling the truth about her daughter's parentage? Does he really want to act on his residual attraction for Gloria and try to rekindle their romance? And would she be interested anyway, given that she seems a lot cooler about their former relationship than he is? Is Gary entirely deranged, or could he possibly genuinely be the conduit for some sort of Native American Great Spirit that is guiding Dan towards some mysterious goal?

The answer to that last question is obviously "no", but the questions about the reliability of Gloria's account of events after Dan's original departure for the UK are never really answered. The one about the possible rekindling of their romance is, though, as Gloria reveals that (again) she's got another bloke on the go, and intends to marry this one. Dan gives her his blessing, and instead pursues restoring friendly relations with his ex-girlfriend Stephanie and throws himself into Gary's project. This involves a bit of subterfuge in the British Museum archives, during which Dan finds some evidence for the final resting-place of the great Tecumseh, and briefly returns to the USA to attend the ceremonial re-burial of his remains.

I read Cartwright's The Promise Of Happiness a while back (September 2008 to be precise) and thought it was pretty good. I don't think this is as good, mainly because it seems weirdly unfocused - lots of interesting plot strands, or at least potential plot strands, get set up and never really go anywhere, Dan doesn't seem to have much of a character arc in that he's not noticeably changed by his experiences, and some of the plot devices (the bit about Tecumseh at the end in particular) seem tacked on rather incongruously. It all zips past very readably but without it ever being clear what the purpose of any of it is. Presumably we're meant to reflect on growing up, the unreliability of some of the memories that we feel underpin our entire adult personalities, faith versus rationality, the power of ritual and tradition, that sort of thing.

Clearly plenty of people would disagree with me, though, since Leading The Cheers won the Whitbread Prize in 1998 (it's now the Costa Prize). The link to the list of winners that I provided here seems now to be defunct, so here's what appears to be a reasonably definitive one. My updated list goes 1976, 1977, 1980, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006.


The Black Rabbit said...

Even though I ahare your fondle mammaries of the Clifton suspension bridge, I suspect I am nowhere near as much of a fan of bridges as yer good self, stout yeoman.

Maybe my bridge claim to fame might be that whilst honeymooning, mesel and Anna crossed a rickety rope bridge crossing the gorge in Sri Lanka where the Bridge on the river Kwai was filmed.
Which was nice.
Incidentally, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (rickety rope bridge scene) was filmed on the self-same gorges n all.
To beef air.
It was these Sri Lankan gorges that revealed to me that I have developed a healthy respect for heights (or a mild fear I guess) since jumping out of planes in my more crayzeh yoof.
I'm big and ugly enough to admit I didn't really enjoy crossing the "Kwai" rope bridge with our driver bouncing about quite deliberately (like a langur) behind me, getting the bridhe to swing violently from side to side.

The Black Rabbit said...

Apologies for the typos. Its early and I need to cross KIngston bridge and get to work innit

electrichalibut said...

typos schmypos - I'd be more concerned about attaching the comment to the wrong bleedin' post if I were you, gawd bless yer.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge reminds me that I must get round to documenting the rules of the Suspension Bridge Challenge here sometime.

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