Tuesday 3 August 2010

Going Underground: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, Concrete Island by J. G. Ballard, and Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Before we get to the promised cavalcade of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake Scores, I thought I'd take a slight detour to chew over some recent non-Westlake reads (yes, I do read other books). Quite by chance, I've read three books in quick succession over the past few weeks where the main protagonist finds himself cast away or trapped in a small patch of land. Two of the books are actually very similar in their choice of urban location, while the third is more rural, but still bears a remarkable similarity to the others.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household was the first of this triumvirate I read, and the most rural. Originally published in 1939, it's the first-person account of an unnamed British man (who, though nameless, hints throughout that he is a Lord, and well-recognised in England), his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate a European dictator, and his subsequent escape into the English countryside, all the while pursued by agents of the dictator. There's an extended sequence in the novel where our hero digs himself a burrow in the Dorset moors, and it's this section that's the most compelling and bears the most resemblance to the other two books, as he gradually loses all trace of his previously civilized nature and sinks into a filthy, degraded, but also strangely alluring existence.

Alluring, because it's at this point that he seems most free, and most happy, despite the squalor he's living in. Reduced to merely surviving, any and all problems melt away in the face of more immediate concerns: finding food, keeping warm. It's an extremely simplified way of life, but one our hero almost revels in, particularly when he is granted the occasional company of a grumpy, feral cat.

It's this acceptance of, and in turn embracing of, a downgraded existence that I was reminded of when I was reading the second book, William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009). Here, a young man called Adam Kindred is being hunted for a murder he didn't commit, so, much like Household's character, he removes himself from society and in this case goes underground in London. Again, as he divests himself of the trappings of civilization – he can't use his credit cards or contact anyone lest he be tracked – he finds a kind of peace in a triangle of overgrown wasteland near Chelsea Bridge, with a camping stove to heat his tins of beans and three old tyres fashioned into a chair.

Even when he's forced to leave this patch of ground and starts to slowly rejoin society, Kindred feels the occasional pang for his lost parcel of land, much as Rogue Male's protagonist is reluctant to leave his lair. And once again, this is probably the most vivid part of the novel, enjoyable though the subsequent chapters are. Like Household, Boyd, through Kindred, seems to be yearning for a simpler way of life, one where a small triangle of land can offer more fulfillment than a wider life of conspicuous consumption – even if it does mean having to snack on the occasional seagull.

Of course, the protagonist in the third novel of our triumvirate has even less choice in the matter than either Kindred or Lord No-Name: in J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island (1973), an architect named Robert Maitland crashes through a barrier on London's Westway onto another triangle of wasteland, and becomes trapped. His injuries prevent him from escaping, and in any case no one will stop to help him. I'm only a third of the way through the book at the moment, so I don't know if Maitland will come to embrace his new existence, but it's still striking that both Maitland and Kindred wind up in triangles of land in west London, only a couple of miles apart.

It's too early to pass judgment on Concrete Island yet, but the other two novels are both fine works. Household has a clipped style befitting his ennobled narrator, while Boyd's early tendency to pepper his prose with off-piste words – a boscy here, a ratiocination there – settles down once the narrative starts to gain momentum. But both books paint compelling portraits of individuals cast adrift from mainstream society, and, possibly with Concrete Island (we shall see...), show that going underground needn't necessarily be such a bad thing. Seagull snacking aside.


  1. I started keeping track of the unusual words in Ordinary Thunderstorms because I sometimes could not tell if Boyd was making up words or using words I had never seen. (And it was deja vu all over again when you used 'off-piste' in describing Boyd's vocabulary - I had to look it up - nice trick.)

    For a while I was keeping track of interesting uses of criminal slang in the Stark books. I had an idea for a blog post called 'Argot in Parker' but my efforts petered out after six or seven books.

    Off - Topic: Some publisher called Stark House press is publishing two unpublished Peter Rabe novels this winter.

  2. I did find his use of unusual words quite distracting at first; they were like little hand grenades lobbed in, disrupting the flow and sending me to the dictionary. The other thing I found slightly jarring were the names of a lot of the characters, which seemed willfully obscure. But these, and the slightly weak opening, are only niggles; it's still a really good book.

    I know what you mean about the Parkers: some of the slang Westlake uses is quite archaic. Incidentally, one thing that is interesting about the books is the lack of profanity in them; I'm pretty sure the first 'shit' I've spotted was in The Black Ice Score, eleven books in.

    Thanks for the Peter Rabe heads-up. Definitely be getting those I think.

  3. Great little triptych there. Very cool. I've read Concrete Island and Rogue Male but not Ordinary Thunderstorms. I've added it to my list.

    I think there is a profound difference between Household and Ballard's approach. Household is writing from the upper-class, educated perspective where the fantasy of the simple life was not uncommon (and still exists today with aspiration consumer magazines like "Simple") while the upper class was still a powerful social factor in Britain. Ballard is writing from the period where the nouveau riche were becoming the dominant culture and his critique is much darker (as well as being fraught with the usual Ballardisms of weird, distantly powerful females, anxious power struggles and general detached ambivalence).

    Personally, I prefer Household's vision in this case, but that's just because I cling to those old paternalistic aristocratic fantasies of a world of competent men in charge.

  4. I happened upon your blog by accident looking for information on Household (scant as it is). Nice blog I must say. I first "read" the book via a BBC adaptation of it. I *think* it's read i its entirety and is just fantastic. Highly recommended. I look forward to reading his other books as well now. I read the Ballard as well and he is an odd duck. Much as I like him he is definitely a different kettle of fish.
    Lucky you to live in Lewes! I visited there many years ago and loved it. I was in a bookshop there(the only one?) and they were just lovely people.

  5. Thanks for the comment, upkerry! Glad you like the blog; if you're interested, I've got a bit more on Geoffrey Household here.

    Lewes actually has quite a few bookshops: Bow Windows, A&Y Cumming, 15th Century, and more besides. Whereabouts was the one you visited?

  6. Hi there. Sorry to be a bit late to the party, but I came across this blog entry in my quest for "more" on Rogue Male... I'm writing my thesis on it... can you point me in any good direction? Any nugdes, nods or otherwise are appreciated.

  7. I'm not sure I have much more to add to this post or the comments; I expect you're already aware of the sequel to Rogue Male, Rogue Justice, but other than that, I'm afraid it's going to be a case of a fair bit of googling on your part!