From Cohn to Celine - Cult Books
Definition of cult? It’s a feeling, a spirit. For example, the spirit of the person who brazenly walks into a nightclub, bypassing the doormen with something close to actual invisibility. Cult books run on their own time, walk out of step and hear other drums or as Ken Kesey put it in the ultimate ode to cult-living One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: “Good writin' ain't necessarily good readin'.”
Journey To The End Of The Night (Louis-Ferdinand Celine)
Beginning at the end of WW1, Celine’s first novel is an autobiographical masterpiece that caused immediate outrage and admiration upon release. Echoes of two other special misanthropes - Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski - can be heard in the sarcastic voice of anti-hero Ferdinand Bardamu. His eloquent questioning of deranged officialdom and the management of insignificance, of life itself, is unsparing. Sadly, this toxic impulse would later tarnish Celine’s own life and legacy after writing a series of anti-Semitic pamphlets during WW2. In his defence, you could argue that he had a dim view of adults in their entirety.
Beyond Belief (Emlyn Williams)
An influence on Morrissey - who lifted the chapter title Suffer Little Children for a Moors-related song on the first Smiths album – this intensely lyrical account of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley’s violent entwinement is now unfairly derided as a sensationalist mess. Unlike Truman Capote’s New Journalism classic In Cold Blood, Williams hadn’t done the required legwork or spent time with the relevant people to create a definitive or true account. Yet, it is still a novel of mounting power – hypnotic, sad and poetically constructed – that reads like a post-war stepping-stone for the new gloom that followed a decade later with Joy Division and then later The Smiths themselves.
I Am Still The Greatest Says Jonny Angelo (Nik Cohn)
Cohn was eighteen, cocky and brilliant when he wrote this electric hymn to rock myth. Weaving actual quotes from the forgotten English great of Rock & Roll, PJ Proby – one-time Elvis support act who later shocked the straights and consigned himself to drunken obscurity for splitting his pants not once but twice on stage – into the fictional character of Jonny Angelo, Cohn captures the romantic arrogance and excessive selfishness of a lead singers life like no other. Maybe his own age is the key here: 18, that (blackly) magical know-it-all/know-fuck-all milestone.
Janine, 1982 (Alasdair Gray)
Often overlooked in favour of his other inventive masterpiece – Lanark (25 years in writing and worth every year) – Janine, 1982 tells the painful but also witty and bleakly humorous story of Jock McLeish, a lonely alcoholic security systems engineer who attempts to keep his own terrible memories at bay by creating pornographic visions centred around the fantasy of Janine. Unable to wallow further in illusions, the memories keep breaking in, disturbing the narrative, until eventually they become the text and here Jock’s life/the lives of many others is revealed; so much waste, compromise and foolish hubris.
Tomato Red (Daniel Woodrell)
Discovering Daniel Woodrell is like the thrill-ride opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones gets his hands on that small golden idol. Thing is, you don’t want to surrender the idol like Jones had to because Woodrell is your new best mate in waiting and Tomato Red, his finest work. The dialogue is quick and realistic, the violence is Peckinpah with a pen and the enormously touching philosophical tangents will consume you with self-celebration and have you floating above the human race for a day or two.
Austin Collings’ collection of stories The Myth of Brilliant Summers is available here.