Sunday, 9 October 2011
And having found it, I devoured it in one sitting and find myself wishing I'd read it when it came out so I could add my voice to those praising it to the rafters.
The most obvious comparison for this rogue's autobiography is Charles Bukowski round about the time of Post Office, but the one that occurs to me is Dugmore Boetie's brilliantly funny Apartheid era memoir Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost. Like that book, this is the true story of a petty criminal, told in his own words, and seemingly as lacking in self-awareness.
Bob Moore is what tends to be called a loveable rogue (though only by those who've never been ripped off by him) and certainly he views himself in that sort of light - and definitely not, as the title suggests, as a crook. And yet he's basically a disgusting human being, even for a working class Glasgow engineer kicking about the sharp end of the world in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He steals from woman who love him and people who trust him, kills at least two, and possibly as many as four, people on his travels, deserts friends and lovers at the drop of a hat, embezzles, thieves and - in his own words - swipes anything he desires and does so with barely a regard for anyone else. He's the sort of sentimental drunk who leans on your shoulder at the end of New Year dances and tells you how he's 'always had a lot of time for you, you prick', the sort who'll give a drinking buddy his wife's last tenner, the sort that goes out to buy a packet of cigarettes and doesn't reappear for ten years.
He's obviously bright and knows his trade, and people like him, even when they know the sort of person he appears to be. In his sparse, almost Hemingway style, he sketches in a picture of himself while telling nothing beyond his name and place of birth, and in doing so paints an equally real portrait of the worlds he moves around in, whether in Scotland or in America or up-river in China.
And yet he doesn't seem entirely real.
Perhaps it's the style, so spare yet so effective, or the fact that he seems to have the knack of turning up in just the sorts of scrapes and situations into which an adventure writer would drop his fictional hero. Maybe it's the way I was constantly reminded of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, or even that Dugmore Boetie's autobiography is generally considered to be mainly fiction, but something in this book rings false. Nobody else seems to mention this in reviews (and the publisher the editor claims printed the original version of the book back in 1935 certainly did exist, even if there seems to be no mention of the book itself prior to this (re)print).
Maybe in fact it's the footnotes that ring alarm bells in my ears. Because while the book itself is a wonderful read (true or not) and the publisher's have done a great job in presenting it, with an interesting foreword and am afterword from James Kelman, the footnotes which the editor has liberally scattered throughout are intrusive and often surely needless. Can any reader really not know what a mast is, or need to have the editor conjecture as to exactly what kind of cocktail Moore is describing when he lists a couple of fruits he likes in drinks? All it does is drop the reader out of the narrative (this reader, anyway) as their eyes flick down to the bottom of the page to discover that 'pace' is another word for speed or that a steward is a person who works on a ship. Sometimes the footnote is even incorrect (when Moore says he 'wrote [a letter] to his mother' it surely means exactly what it says not that 'wrote' means 'addressed').
To me, the footnotes feel a touch too much, but perhaps its just that they appear clumsy when arrayed beside Moore's stripped down prose.
And of course whether it's all true or not makes little difference really - except if the author did not die in 1937 of acute alcoholic gastritis then he would he please do a second book of Bob Moore's memoirs, because this one - footnotes aside - was pretty bloody splendid.