Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Wilson, Astill and Doyle.

Ballistics, by D W Wilson

Following his success as a writer of short stories, D W Wilson’s ‘Hyper Macho’ debut novel follows two male protagonists: Alan West and Archer Cole. At the behest of his grandfather Cecil, Alan journeys through the Canadian Rockies, in the grip of wildfires, searching for his father. He takes Archer Cole along with him, an 82-year-old US marine and Vietnam War veteran, who continually experiences disturbing flashbacks.

David Annand of the Telegraph offers praise for Wilson’s first novel. He remarks that “unlike the standard sub-Carver sentences that characterise most of the [Hyper Macho] genre, Wilson’s prose is rich and nuanced, and Archer is a sophisticated portrait of a man intelligent beyond his education”. However, “It’s a shame ... that Alan seems to have been unaffected by his big-city schooling and is as uncritically in thrall as the rest of them to the Hyper Macho honour code.” Annand suggests that the book would thus benefit from a “counterpoint model of masculinity”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair offers a similar criticism, remarking that the novel is perhaps too hypermasculine, to the clear detriment of its analysis of women. “The story lacks real insight into its trio of female characters” suggests Adair. “Invermere, [where most of the novel takes place] drenched in testosterone, booze, male sweat, the sounds of gunfire, the rasp of petrol engines, buzzsaws, men revving up for regular blood and bone encounters, is a male-only adventure playground”. Compared to Wilson’s short stories, Adair also believes that “too much happening, too many words”.  A similar overload is lamented in “the closing quarter of the novel” which “almost chokes itself: so much drama”.

Robert Nathan of the Guardian however is not so critical of what he calls a “lean, powerful book about quiet, emotional people”.  He offers particular praise for Wilson’s descriptive ability. He “animates a world that any small-town North American could identify in a moment”. Yet mere description is not all Wilson achieves. The novel “transcends this environment to evoke something universal: how people live through loss, and how they talk about what matters, or don't”.

The Great Tamasha, by James Astill

The critics have lavished praise on James Astill’s exploration of Indian cricket. The Great Tamasha analyses key developments in cricket’s recent history, such as the advent of the IPL, the Indian influence on cricket, and its growing domination of the sport, while also using the game as a lens to view deeper, more problematic issues in Indian society.

The Guardian’s James Burke flatters Astill’s  “engaging, perceptive and rigorous book”. The book is about much more than sport” Burke explains, and features analysis of recurrent Indian issues, such as the caste system. Particular praise is given to Astill’s first-hand research. Astill “spent a week living in both slums in Mumbai and a rural village in the dirt-poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which few writers have the time, or the desire, to do”. As a result, his “narrative is helped along by lively interviews with strong characters”. Burke concludes that “The Great Tamasha tells a fascinating story well. Anyone interested in India, or cricket, and most certainly both, will enjoy it very much”.

Mihir Bose of the Independent offers similar adulation. “Much of this story is known” remarks Bose, “but while Astill relies on previously published material, what makes his book exceptional is his first-hand reporting”. The breadth of Astill’s research receives special praise. We “meet powerful Indian politicians from Sharad Power, who aspired to be prime minister and headed international cricket, to residents of Dharavi in Mumbai, one of the biggest slums in Asia”. Like Burke, Bose is also keen to emphasise how other important issues in Indian society are tackled through the lens of cricket. India’s “corruption, crony capitalism, ... [its] thriving democracy” are all explored.

Finally, Tom Fort of the Telegraph congratulates Astill on a “clear-sighted and superbly researched” book. Yet another critic is impressed by Astill’s erudition: “Astill seems to have talked to everyone who is anyone involved in this deeply unattractive business” Fort remarks. Fort also believes that as a “cricket nut” and the “Economist’s bureau chief in Delhi, Astill was well placed to observe the birth of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and monitor its explosive growth”.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s latest novel is a sequel to The Commitments (1987). It follows middle class, middle-aged Jimmy Rabbitte who pays for a three bedroomed house and sizeable family by pursuing a career in the Irish music industry. At the start of the novel Jimmy is diagnosed with bowel cancer (hence the title), exploring both his treatment for the disease, and the Irish music industry simultaneously.

Theo Tait of the Guardian remarks that although the book is “easy to pigeon hole” as a “mid-life crisis novel”, it “has heart and humour, and is thick with Dublin detail”. Impressive too is the fact that Doyle manages to simultaneously serve “up a good-sized helping of nostalgia”, yet attack such sentiments at the same time. Tait believes that the book “provides everything that, back in the mid-1990s, a Roddy Doyle novel seemed to represent: a big, raucous but loving Northside Dublin family; perfectly pitched dialogue; well-observed male camaraderie; a lot of music; and, perhaps most of all, entertaining profanity”. He concludes that “The Guts deserves to be a popular success. Who knows, it might even penetrate a demographic group notoriously resistant to reading novels: middle‑aged men”.

The National Post’s Philip Marchand also emphasises the warmth that Doyle’s latest work contains. “The novel is rich in sentiment and episodes conveying sentiment” Marchand explains, while the book has a “comic mode” which is retained even in its darker moments. This “comic mode is heightened by the form of the narrative, which is basically a series of dialogues - often texted”. However, although this “keeps things sprightly” it “also limits the emotional tone, so that the novel begins to seem like a requiem performed entirely by brass instruments.” In all, Marchand offers a balanced appraisal of a “buoyant tale”.

“It is bright, jokey, wry and robust” explains Patricia Craig of the Independent. She a makes a point of commenting on the book’s authenticity, as Doyle “captures the authentic tones of a late 20th-century, urban working-class, pub- and housing-estate culture, all Howyeh and Wha' d'you mean? and shite and fuck”. This creates an “emphatic atmosphere” which “in a sense... takes the place of a plot”. Like the other “’Barrytown’ novels in particular” The Guts is by no means a book where you will find intricate plot making.

Again, reference is made to the book’s treatment of sentimentality. At times, Doyle’s “and his characters' exasperation with sentimental shite ('it was fuckin' everywhere') gives way to actual sentimental shite: 'the sadness, the grief, had never left. Like losing the kids, them growing up and away from him, one by one'. But such lapses are rare, amid the whole demotic, chaotic onrush of Dublin life and inimitable carry-on”, Craig explains.

Craig remarks that The Guts features much of what is typical of Roddy Doyle: social criticism, “immense skill” and an intensely Irish feel.

James Astill's "The Great Tamasha", an exploration of indian cicket, has been well received. Images: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State