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.