Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Roddy Doyle, James Frey, and a biography of Malcolm X.

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

Gerard Woodward reviews Roddy Doyle's new short story collection in the Guardian, and is overcome by Doyle's portrayal of a middle-aged malaise in which "everyone in the whole world is 48. That's what it can feel like, after reading these tightly themed stories of mid-life angst." Even so, the book refrains from heavy-handedness: "Scenes are conjured from a few dabs, narratives held together with invisible thread. It is a technique he has been honing since his earliest books, and one that is particularly suited to the short story. The tone of the collection is far from bleak."

Jane Clinton, writing in the Express, concedes that "a collection of short stories on the theme of male loss may not seem that appealing", though finds Doyles' collection one of "rare and beautiful mid-life meditations". Tonally, his writing is enough to persuade Clinton that she is "eavesdropping on each of these men's forbidden thoughts and fears"; though the book "is not all doom" thanks to "flashes of morbid, and sometimes crude, humour". Generally, "the preoccupations of a gender and generation perhaps not known for emotional outpourings is surprisingly uplifting."

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey

Mark Lawson's Guardian review of James Frey's novel acknowledges that "the fate that would await a contemporary messiah ... is ... regularly attempted in fiction." However, "the novel itself is compelling as both a thriller and a provocative riposte to religious orthodoxies". Yet this "riposte" might go too far for "fervent believers", for whom "the problem with this novel will be blasphemy." Despite that, Lawson notes that "there's also a secular literary objection. The book creates a Jesus who conveniently preaches the values of liberal America - pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, anti-churchgoing - but there's no reason why this figure should have more validity than the historical one being dismissed." Even so, Frey's fiction is "impressively done", "the alternating testimonies distinctively voiced and the twists on the gospel versions nicely judged."

Peter Conrad writes less charitably in the Observer, finding the novel an "unmoving tale", and warning that Frey, not only "isn't fooling anyone", but "happens to be a shameless faker, who manufactures mishaps to embellish his personal mystique". His latest novel is "artlessly crass in its retelling of what's meant to be the greatest story ever told"; his protagonistic messiah figure is "a semi-articulate hippy"; his prose "lumpenly prosaic, unable to conceive of or communicate rapture". Ultimately, Frey's work "makes Jesus Christ Superstar sound like Handel's Messiah."

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

A review published by Wilbert Rideau in the Financial Times praises Marable's work as "encyclopaedic in its approach", with a "staggering breadth and depth of scholarship" and "much to recommend it for its history of orthodox Islam, the perspective it offers on the black political movements of the 1950s and 1960s that changed America, and its insights into the development and inner workings of the Nation of Islam". However, "Marable the academic historian is sometimes at odds with Marable the biographer", and though this book is "indispensable as a reference for scholars", such detail might also prove "an impediment for the general reader". Rideau suggests that "too much detail about Islamic history ... interrupts the narrative about Malcolm X's development". Moreover, the account lacks "a sense of the man as a fully rounded human being: a friend, father, lover or husband." Marable fails to wholly capture this "elusive and enigmatic public figure whose politically incorrect speech gave voice to the dark and angry thoughts of an oppressed people."

Andrew Anthony, writing in the Observer, heralds Marable's biography as the aptly "meticulous portrait" that Malcolm X "deserves" - a "comprehensive and fair-minded portrait of both Malcolm and the turbulent period of American history in which he lived and died". Marable details the extent to which Malcolm was "adept at tailoring his message to different audiences", though finds that ultimately, "the man who emerges from this book is in many respects admirable: brave, loyal, self-disciplined, quick-witted, charismatic, acutely intelligent and a public speaker of quite awesome power". Despite this, Marable also traces Malcolm's flaws: chiefly his "attitude to women", and successfully places Malcolm's personal life alongside "his unique role in black and global resistance culture".

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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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