Microviews Vol. 11 (The Debut Edition): Brous, Kay, Abbott

on Saturday, July 9, 2011
I Am Max Lamm by Raphael Brous
I should probably start with a disclaimer. Not only do I know Raphael Brous but I read the novel in manuscript form, offered a few thoughts and even scored a thanks in the acknowledgements for my efforts. Make of that what you will. It isn't going to change the fact that I'm still enough of an arsehole to view this exciting but flawed debut with some semblance of objectivity. So here goes. Max Lamm is the collected neuroses and failings of two thousand years of Jewish manhood (think Alex Portnoy with a bit more flair and a little less refrigerated liver). A once promising tennis prodigy, his career flies off the rails in spectacular fashion when his dalliance with a South American hooker goes viral on the internet. Escaping to London, he basks in anonymity until he kills a Pakistani teenager who tries to mug him, thereby starting the biggest race riot in a generation and forcing him to go into hiding under a barbeque in Hyde Park. And that's just the first couple of chapters. It only takes a few lines to realise that Brous is an important new voice on the literary scene. The writing is unrelentingly obsessive, with grand, sweeping riffs that shoot skywards only to do several backflips before soaring back down to where they started. It is an act of lyrical acrobatics that is just incredible to behold, but might have simply been a case of style over substance had Brous not backed it up with an encyclopaedic knowledge of culture (high and pop), current affairs, science and ridiculously obscure trivia. It doesn't always work - sometimes the riffs seem repetitive and there are a few mistaken 'facts' that an editor should have picked up (the one about the Jamie Bulger case really bugged me) - but for the most part it is easy to forgive Brous his stumbles because reading I Am Max Lamm is just so invigorating an experience. As the novel progresses and the hysteria mounts, Max finds himself taken in by Kelly Wesson, his goyishe mirror image, the spoilt rich American daughter of Republican royalty, also on a quest to escape her past. Luckily (or unluckily) for him, she does so through sex, although for her it seems more of an act of abasement and rebellion than anything remotely romantic. The sex scenes, in Brous's manic style, are quite tawdry and over the top though they never quite tick over to cheap porn territory. There are moments that might contend for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards but even they are so tongue in cheek (amongst other places) that it's hard not to read them as intended parody. It is just another example of Brous navigating his way through a pretty tricky narrative quagmire of his own making. Sometimes he does get bogged down - he could do with exorcising the ghost of Phillip Roth (c'mon, the guy ain't dead yet!) for risk of descending into pastiche and the ending is not quite convincing - but you have to keep reminding yourself that I Am Max Lamm is his first novel. Sure, it might not be the best book you're likely to read this year, but it is undoubtedly one of the most exciting. What more could you want from a debut?

Micka by Frances Kay
The 'evil child' has a serious pedigree in literary fiction and any book that explores the topic will inevitably draw comparisons with the two classics: The Bad Seed by William March and The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. Frances Kay dips in from a new angle, inspired methinks by the Jamie Bulger case (what is it with Bulger and debuts?). Rather than focusing on one evil kid, she conjures two and sets about exploring the genesis of each individually and the destructive interaction between them as a pair. Micka is the textbook psycho case - from a severely broken home, he is completely neglected by his drunken, inept mother and receives regular, vicious beatings from his brother Lee (probably one of the most repulsive characters I've ever read). Laurie is from the other side of the tracks, a spoilt semi-rich kid who is under-parented by two people more interested in one-upping the other as their marriage falls apart than looking out for their child's welfare. With their lives spiralling out of control, Micka and Laurie form a fast bond at school. And so the horror begins. The boys' story is told in their alternating voices, which makes for interesting insight into how each of them actually sees the other. Micka's sections are harrowing and make for incredibly difficult reading. At one stage he is savagely raped by Lee, a scene I have been unable to get out of my head since reading it. Laurie's parts are more mundane, though one gets the feeling that he is the more manipulative and unhinged one of the pair. Kay charts their descent into mutually dependant psychopathy quite convincingly, leaving the reader to feel like they are strapped onto a Scalextric track car careening towards a predictable end. Except the end is anything but predictable. Despite the parallels with the Bulger case, Kay wisely avoids the obvious and rounds the book out with an interesting, if slightly twee, twist. Micka is an engaging novel, well-worth a Sunday afternoon read, but highly unlikely to knock Nobel laureate Lessing off her perch.

The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott
Critics have been quick to liken David Abbott's debut to Ian McEwan and, to be fair, there are definite similarities. It certainly has the typical McEwan set-up: ordinary guy has life turned upside down by sudden, shocking incident. In this instance, retired advertising guru, Henry Cage is out on Westminster Bridge to welcome in the Millennium when he is pushed into the back of ex-con (and all-round psycho) Colin. The latter reacts violently, headbutting Cage in the face, and then follows it up with a campaign of low-level, but extremely creepy stalking. To this end, The Upright Piano Player is the novel Saturday should have been. But there is a lot more to the book than some hokey act of homage. Beneath the familiar facade is a surprisingly tender meditation on growing old, with a focus on the fractured connections within modern families. Discovering that his cheating ex-wife is dying of cancer, Henry tries to piece their relationship back together. The pair's gentle courtship dance is rendered beautifully, often drawing the reader to the edge of tears. He also reconnects with his estranged son (who sided with the mother) and begins to find new meaning in a grandson he never knew existed. The family drama is a perfect counterbalance to the constant threat of violence that permeates the story. The novel is not without its failings - there are some structural issues, especially with the death of the grandson at the outset wrong-footing the reader - but it is a powerful, assured and ultimately highly accomplished first effort. I'd like to say I can't wait to see what Abbott does next, but given he didn't write his debut until well into his seventies it might be wiser not to hold my breath.


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