The Book of Man

I decided to read “The Book of Man” (by Barry Graham) after reading a fairly glowing review of it on Nick Mamatas’s blog.  I suppose it was this line that got me, “It’s the sort of thing you’re either into or you’re not—a novel about not-very-successful artists, and poverty, and learning how to live.”

I’m kind of a sucker for stories about people trying to figure it all out and not really feeling all that successful, so, yay.

The first-person narrator (Kevin Previn) is a writer that travels back to his hometown of Glasgow after a ten year absence to write a story about his recently deceased friend, Mike Illingworth.  But the book is also somewhat of a book within a book – “The Book of Man” is the title of a book written by Mike Illingworth, and there are brief excerpts at the beginning of many of the chapters.  Example:

The gods are cruel.  Fate is cruel.  Karma is cruel.  Whatever you believe in, you should know it’s cruel; and if you believe in nothing, then there’s only cruelty.

This likely gives you some sense of the book’s tone.  Written in 1995, I initially had some trouble separating this book from the setting and feel of Trainspotting.  Mike was a junkie that died of AIDS, for instance.  But it might have been a moment early in the book, when Kevin first meets Mike, that kind of hung me up in that thought.  Kevin has run into a pub bathroom stall to vomit, but it’s occupied by Mike, so… And then in a moment of drunk logic, Kevin decides the best way to clean up the situation is to punch Mike in the face – still sitting on the toilet, still covered in Kevin’s puke.

But the book quickly gets away from that resonance and becomes much more personal and affecting.  It’s an uncompromising and emotionally raw book, delving deep into friendship and love, poverty and violence, parenthood and identity.

Throughout the book, there’s this sense of detachment from the narrator, which reads as cynicism at the outset.  And given the Glasgow that we meet, it’s pretty easy to understand where that cynicism would come from – at one point in the book, Kevin reflects on a time where two cops mugged him for ten pounds.

But it’s more than that, and in interwoven narratives from the present and various points in the past, the pieces of Kevin Previn’s life are put together and put into painful focus.

The final section reveals the wound he carries from his childhood, and as Kevin starts to see the way that has shaped his life and his own understanding of himself, the reader gets the full weight of that alongside him.  This section is, essentially, written as poetry.  It almost reads as though that’s the only way the narrator can express and live with those facts, and it’s totally heartbreaking.

At the coldest hour of the night, when you feel like you’re completely alone and no one can help you, always remember – you’re right.

It’s a good read, and one that’s likely to linger.

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