Thugs Like Us: A Book Review

Thugs Like Us, John Carnell

Thugs Like Us, John Carnell

I wish I wrote it.  That’s probably the highest compliment another writer can give.  Other than I think God wrote this.  Which maybe with some pantheistic mental gymnastics, I guess I could say.  But why cloud the waters?

When John “Carnage” Carnell sent me his book, I was an easy mark–a drunken tourist stumbling down a dark alley with bills fanning out my bulging wallet.  As a confirmed Anglophile, recovering drunk, semi-reformed nihilistic criminally-inclined maniac, I was a soft-touch for his tale.

“What’s this? A story of a young UK punk’s journey through the world of late 70’s drink, drugs, violence, crime and sex?  Well, that doesn’t sound like something that would interest me.  But, I’ll try to approach it with an open mind.”


I burned through it once quickly.  Then hit it again, this time more slowly–making it last.  I was digging the new friends I was making; Singe, Bill, Flea, Leech, Spiney, Martin, Uggy, Julie, Oily Harry and the Rent-a-riot Crew, Johnny Oldman, Darren the Fat-shit-dog-shagger, Mum and Dad.

It was even better the second time.

A lot of times it is.

And yeah, I’ll hit it again after I recharge a bit.

What makes it so readable?   The clean lines.  Bukowski talked about getting down “the clean line.”  He preferred simple declarative sentences, stripped of all extraneous fluff and frills.  A straight shot to the jaw.  Hemingway, Fante, Vonnegut, a few others, used the simple to capture the complex.  It’s one thing to pull it off in a haiku, but to nail it in the nose, from the speeding car of narrative, takes skill.

And a clean line.

Carnell is a master of the clean line.

For this story he has to be.  As the voice of his protagonist, a working-class “world’s forgotten boy” (the one’s that searching, searching to destroy) with a nagging sensitive side, and even more troublesome fits of visionary insight, Carnell must speak for both beings.  Our hero is a nature boy at heart, who loves birds, and yet can’t help shooting at them with a pellet gun.  He can’t help destroying the things he loves.  Hmm.

The divided self.  The eternal train crash.  The big wave splash.

Jim is a good little boy, one simply overgrown by hooliganistic thughood–a persona required as an adaptation to his environment.  It’s an age-old conflict, hardly unique, but what Carnell does with it is.  His man toils with diverging impulses, surrendering to one or the other, but eventually with a mystic fatalism.  Whether he makes a good decision or a bad decision doesn’t really matter.   Whichever one it was, it was the one required.

How can I explain it?  It’s one thing to ignore certain inner warnings out of drunken foolishness, and it’s another to listen to a deeper voice that says, “Do it.  Things will be bad, but everything will turn out okay anyway.”  It takes a deeper faith not to play hooky from your dharma.  To understand that something from the experience is required.  Regardless of how unpleasant.  As part of a bigger picture.

I know for a fact that if Carnell hadn’t made a shit-load of bad decisions, he wouldn’t have met his wife, and still love of his life, Julie.  Stuff like that really takes the sting out of your fuck-ups.  It does out of mine.  And this one time, I fucked up.

And now things are okay.


Eventually the intuitive mystic and the bat-chain-pulling hell-raiser stop arm-wrestling each other.  And join together in mutual purpose.

But you’re not going to approach that threshold without some internal argument.  Albeit sometimes, a very subtle one–your ultimate decision being made aeons earlier.

Tricky little high-wire act to pull off.  To capture both voices.  And then bring them together.  Synthesize them.  In the written word.

Lolling lapses into purple-trimmed prose are never going to ring true from a lad whose head seems to serve only to break beer glasses and pool cues against.  But in Carnell’s simple, work-a-day blue-collar language, things are described simply as they are, as they happen.  Clouds move across the sky.  The sea sprays.  Birds appear.  People talk.  A fire-extinguisher is thrown through a window.  A pint glass orbits the earth.

There’s beauty everywhere.  No matter what.

He knows how to use words, but he also knows how to use the spaces between those words. In so doing, the mystical and mysterious creep through, unannounced, like flowers through a sidewalk crack. Or the smell of bacon and eggs wafting through a rent-controlled apartment complex.  Without a lot of stress and strain, spiritual beauty is made accessible to every class of citizen, no matter how wretched.

At least to those that take time to pay attention to the spaces.  In between.

It takes a lot of discipline for a writer to leave those spaces.  And trust.  Trust that the reader will meet him on the corner, at the time you both agreed on.  But when that happens, and the deal goes down right, it’s one of the best feelings ever.

I showed up.  I scored.  And it was some good shit.

Thugs Like Us is available through Amazon in “Big Fucking Book” size.  Big enough to smite with, if circumstances warrant, and a masterpiece of sub-culture literature.  Win/win.   Strongly suggested.  Cult-classic status.
Also check out, Johnny’s blogula  @!/read/blog/id/34992392/  It’s a gas, gas, gas.
Mad Lord Thuggington, John Carnell

Mad Lord Thuggington, John Carnell

11 responses to “Thugs Like Us: A Book Review

  1. I dunno, I guess I could say I just liked it cause there was a bit of sex, some violence, and lots of other punk stuff in it. I mean, it stands as a fucking killer book just on those merits without ever stooping to gratuitous cheap thrillerery. Transcendance and inspiring subtextual meta narratives and all are cool too and everything, but John just wrote a fucking stonking punk novel for the ages. Unselfconcious, but with enough narrative self conciousness to make the reader see perfectly a world of UK working class estates through the eyes of a teenager while amidst the fury of first wave punk. And next to the roar of the vast ocean it would traverse in back and forth pollenation of late 20th century punk rock anomie, an ocean Carnell places in orbit thematically with a masterful hand in precession with the storys grit, cheap speed, crime and lager. He makes it at once entirely believeable, yet still an utterly fantasitc, engaging tale as any-and far better than most.
    But, you know, the sex and violence and other punk stuff are always the best parts of any book. Mongy as I may sound, but its true.
    Yet sure enough, I even think about Thugs Like Us and I swear I can hear that ocean behind Vanian, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible on their version of “I Feel Alright.” Maybe John still hears it too.

      • Dude, I didn’t mean it like that. You wrote a great review. I just thought it was a killer book and I wanted to be kind passive-aggressive since Carnell didn’t ask me to review it..hahaha

      • And all I was just saying was that yours was a stellar treatise and it made me feel insecure. Fucking Carnell. He started all this. Next time we see him we should knock his sno-cone into the street and make fun of his short pants. Then I’ll hold him down and you can wipe snot on his public school beanie. But after he signs our copies.

  2. He’s a nice guy Marius. You shouldn’t talk about him like that. Bullying is so out nowadays.
    John, make sure you sign my copy in sparkly ink and Marius just gets the bog standard black sharpie.

  3. It seems kinda inappropriate to comment here – a bit like walking in on mum and dad having sex – but hey, we’re all hippy mother-fuckers at heart.

    Thanks for a perfect review. You get it. What more can I say. When you write a book your hope is that millions will read it. But having it read by one person who understands it, who REALLY gets it, is… mission accomplished.

    Now I have two people ‘over there’ who get it. Fuck me! I’m in writer’s heaven.

    Marius – I doff my stupid hat to you… in so many ways, it’s getting threadbare.
    Dave – write me a review, please.

    A signed copy will be in the post to you both.

    Marius, yours will be signed in the blood of a Russian prisoner I did trade with in the gulag.

    Dave, yours will be signed in glitter pen – the ink fashioned from the dandruff scrapings collected from the living scalp of Justin Bieber.

    • Oh my God, Johnny Boy, how totally inappropriate! How could you just walk in like this, without knocking two minutes longer? Oh well. It’s not like you can expect the English to know anything about proper decorum and protocol. (Uncouth beasts and savagers of all things civilized) It’s okay, while Dave and I were going to Good Manners School, you were probably too busy tearing up bleacher seats for projectiles to rain down on the pitch. We understand how you lads roll.
      Nevertheless, we have have a soft spot in our carbonized hearts for you, John. Dave and I will tolerate just about any aberrant behavior. (Except wearing white after Labor Day)
      Glad you like the log-rolling. I’ll tell you, it’s nerve-wracking business, this review-writing. Did quite a lot of hand-wringing over it and Lori pretty much had to take my finger to finally push the publish button. What is it they say? Behind every fearful and doddering excuse of a man, is a strong woman pushing his buttons.
      Anyway, can’t wait for my automagraphed copy. Could you make it out to Marius, the Miracle Across The Sea? And throw in something about being nothing without me.
      Alright then, a judo chop to the bollocks and a kiss upon your dome, my friend.
      Yours in everlasting thughood,

  4. Marius – I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your madd writin’ skillz. And reading the comments alone is worth the price of admission here in this corner of the world you’ve created. You’ve got me sold on the whole donkey. I’ve never done a book review, and I imagine it’s nowhere as easy as it sounds, but you did a fantastic job. You just nailed it wonderfully.

    As always, a pure pleasure to read your fine work. And look forward to reading the book as well. Glad I found this kiosk of sane insanity….or is it insane sanity?


    • Don’t forget inanity, Paul. Gotta throw that into any mix. Speaking of mix, it’s great to have you hanging out with us here on the same street corner, mad-dogging the squad cars as they slowly cruise by. You’re Canadian, right? We could use one of those. Always level-headed and well-behaved (like Vancouver hockey fans) the Canadian is the voice of reason in a world gone mad. That’s going to be your job, Paul, to be the Voice of Reason. Sorry, bro, but nobody else wants it right now. We’ll get you something else as soon as we get us a Swiss dude. Or a Unitarian.
      Now, if you’re NOT a Canadian, we need you to move there…right away. Find a cheap motel room and wait by the phone for further orders. Oh, after you tell us where to call. Almost forgot that part. That would’ve been a major donk-bend.
      I’m looking at the map here, and it looks like Canada is rather sizable territory. Probably has a lot of motels. So yeah, for sure, let us know which one. But stay by the phone! If you get bored you can chain-smoke and do push-ups. Remember, you’re not on holiday. This is serious shit.
      Keep calm, carry the message on. Much love, Marius.

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