Monday, October 3, 2011

Middle Class v Working Class FICTION SMACKDOWN!:

“Prague, a Novel,” by Arthur Phillips, 2002 / “Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs,” by D.D. Johnson, 2011.

The Americans who eat in Budapest cafes: The Scots who work in burger joints:

In my continuing interest in fiction, I chose these two books accidentally. The first book seemed relevant because I wanted to read something about central Europe. And of course the joke is, while the book is titled ‘Prague,’ that city of the Czech Republic, its really about Prague’s somewhat less glamorous cousin, Budapest, Hungary. The supposition is that all the trendy American tourists who want to go to Prague may pick it up and read it. Ha ha. The second book fits in with the ‘anarchist’ theme, so I got that too.

‘Prague, a Novel’ was a ‘national bestseller,’ got kudos from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and many other newspaper credits. It even has a somewhat cute ‘readers circle’ question section at the back, so you can take it to your book club. Phillips hails from Minneapolis, went to Harvard and seems to be an all-around young and handsome genius. He is squarely in the upscale hipster writers camp.

The book centers on a group of young expatriates sitting around the bars and cafes of Budapest right after the Soviet Army pulled-out of Hungary in 1989. This lead to the collapse of the deformed workers state there, and the slow restoration of capitalism. Johnny on the spot, these Americans now smell an opportunity, or ‘something different.’ The group includes: Emily, a bland cheerleader whose job is being a go-fer for the American ambassador; Charles, a suave and arrogant American/Hungarian investment banker looking for investment opportunities in the ‘new’ Hungary; Mark, a gay post-PHD researching a book on nostalgia; Scott, the inevitable English-as-a-Second-Language teacher and blond athlete, and also an angry and sarcastic young man; and John, his brother, who has just followed big brother Scott to Budapest and seems to be looking for love, or something.

So the first question any reader asks themselves is: Do I even want to sit at a table with these people? Thought about it? OK, don’t answer that. It doesn’t help much that it starts with a beer-laden ‘can you tell the truth?’ party game.

This is not so much a story of the ‘ugly’ American as it is a story of the useless American. Some of the book touches on humor – John’s infatuation with the doltish Emily being a long thread. Or John’s infatuation with his brother, a rude loser underneath. Mark has a hilarious desire to re-create and live in the past, catching it just at the corner of his eye while the rest of us remain oblivious. The book details the group’s contacts with the alternatively impressive, poor, sad or crude Hungarians. The plot of the book centers around Charles attempt to invest in a famous and heroic Hungarian publishing company, the “Horvath Press.” Since this is not so much a cliffhanger as an inevitability, the book really centers around drinks, dances, meals at restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs, with a some sex, meals and drinks in apartments thrown in. Charles succeeds in bringing back the Horvath Press to Budapest from Vienna. Emily continues to walk in and out of the embassy. Mark gives up on nostalgia and leaves. Scott marries a Hungarian girl and moves to Transylvania. And John, who seems to be the most sensitive, finds love with the women he didn’t expect, and still yearns after the woman he did expect.

It is called a ‘novel of ideas’ but I failed to locate any. It is charged with being a ‘caustic satire,’ but the fun is actually quite gentle. It is called ‘elegant and entertaining.’ For some it must be. I eventually started turning the pages quickly, as gradually, nothing happens. Of course, no one in the book gets to Prague. Other than name-dropping parts of Budapest – the Gellert baths, Adrassy Utca, the Gerbeaud restaurant, the Buda hills, the Castle and various squares – the book was not about Budapest, nor the Hungarian people, let alone Prague. It was about some young, vaguely interesting, Americans. So even in a foreign country – the real topic of any good American – is themselves.

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books
Red Frog, September 13, 2011

“Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs”

So imagine you are sitting at another set of tables – this time in a burger joint in Dundule, Scotland in 1998 called “Benny’s Burgers.” No wine, no table cloths, no serviettes, just paper napkins and lots of beef. The action is not happening at the tables. It is in the back room and the kitchen, where a large set of disgruntled Scottish lads and lassies are so pissed about their menial lives that one of them forms “Benny’s Revolutionary Army” and several become anarchists or revolutionaries.

The book opens during a smoky confrontation with police at the 2000 World Bank summit in Prague, somewhere around Wencelas Square. Unlike the deadbeats from Budapest, these folks actually get to Prague, and find the revolutionary worm has turned. It follows a love-sick burger-flipper, the invisible Wayne, who travels across Europe after the 1999 Seattle protests – to Prague in 2000, Mayday in Parliament Square in 2000, Thessaloniki’s riots in 2003, to Paris, back to London and again, Dundule. It is not just the ‘struggle’ but various revolutionary or plain sexy girlfriends that lead him on. The scenes are set in the bars and Benny’s of Dundule, and its “Breast Mountain’ of garbage, to a London squat, then Greek dorms overrunning with thousands of leftists, to various parent’s homes and back to Scotland. Petrol bombs explode in Greece, the black bloc moves from street to street, pathetic protests fail to make a dent in Paris, and Benny’s Burgers gets well-defaced several times around the world.

Johnson’s use of Scottish brogue is great, as is his description of the gang of political working-class ner-do-wells and the officious tripe they encounter. Time jumps around in the novel, first ahead, then behind, but eventually it makes sense. There is a hilarious conservative Indian wedding where the groom, a sub-manager at Benny’s, sounds more like Kumar from “Harold & Kumar” than a Punjabi prince. Johnston also gets in some fierce digs at the British Socialist Workers Party, and later, various anarchists types, including the declining stages of the “Anarchist Book Fair.” Another scene where he robs his exes apartment using a cab is pure slapstick. His comment about one of his exes? “She still kissed like a Labrador.” “Petrol Bombs” is funnier than “Prague” by a long-shot. Of course, you have to appreciate crude, straight-forward humor.

Eventually Wayne tires of anarchism (after being dumped by his French anarchist girlfriend, Manette) and goes home, stealing valuable antiques from another ex-girlfriend’s female partner on the way – the cab story. He finally ends up in Manchester. The only similar link between these books is that both central characters look for love in all the wrong places. Which seems to be the only place to look.

The winner of the Smackdown? “Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs” by a TKO for humour, dialect, politics and action.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, October 3, 2011

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