Short reviews

Delhi
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 291pp, £14.99

Sam Miller describes himself as a “flâneur”, someone who likes to wander aimlessly through cities, but his new travelogue of Delhi is anything but directionless. His meander along the highways, markets and alleyways of one of the biggest cities in the world is a faithful chronicle of contemporary Indian society and the imprint that centuries of change have left on the country.

Miller’s journey takes him across class and caste, from an inner-city slum where the inhabitants live in constant danger of being bulldozed into the dirt to the grand splendour of the Imperial hotel, practically unchanged since its construction during the Raj. He relishes the quirky humour he encounters throughout the city: he visits a Seventh-Day Adventist church where God is likened to a flytrap, and within pages is sitting in a revolving restaurant being served “tinned fresh fruit salad”. For all its entertaining eccentricities, Delhi is careful to maintain a strong sense of the city’s sad heritage of religious factionalism, pollution, rioting, poverty and crime.

Gabriel Byng

Lowside of the Road: a Life of Tom Waits
Barney Hoskyns
Faber & Faber, 640pp, £20

Thomas Alan Waits was born at Park Avenue Hospital in Pomona, California, on 7 December 1949. That much
is certain. Yet ever since, the songwriter, who emerged in the early 1970s owing more to George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra and Charles Bukowski than to the prevailing hippie culture, and showing off a singing voice that was rougher than a grizzly bear’s hangover, has proceeded to hoodwink and bamboozle his way through the world of American song, his persona onstage and off part conspiratorial barfly, part deranged carny.

So, it’s no surprise that Hoskyns fails to get close to the man whose music gradually came to incorporate Weimar-era cabaret, gut-bucket blues and ersatz Chinese opera, and to be inhabited by characters such as the Eyeball Kid and Poodle Murphy (who worked in Funeral Wells’s knife-throwing act), as well as disease-ridden chihuahuas called Carlos. But there are tall tales aplenty here, together with a sterling argument why all this surrealism makes Waits “as important an American artist as anyone the 20th century had produced”.

Joseph Murphy

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape