James Hawes: Rancid Aluminium

Some years ago, this book became the latest of my favourites. (Actually the other six were “the six favourites” of mine as early as by the end of the Tech.) Nevertheless I was always certain it wasn’t a book to everybody’s liking. So when some moths ago I looked it up in the LibraryThing, I was pleasantly surprised to find it rated by the readers with an average amounting to about 3.5 stars (out of five). I expected less.

On the other hand I was unpleasantly surprised to read the only reader’s review there was. Not because the reviewer didn’t like the book at all. All right, so their second paragraph runs like this:

The author has several promising themes to work with here, but fails on all counts. This didn’t work for me on any level. Make no mistake, it is awful. The narrative and characterisation are simply dreadful; it was not funny; the Russian mafia stuff was unbelievable; and the sex puerile and blokish. Contrived, silly and rather boring and, worse still, badly written and ungrammatical.

I disagree on almost everything they say – but from a personal point of view. Not funny? Few books made me laugh as much as this one still does, but so what? I’d probably find no laughing matter in stuff that they think hilarious. That makes neither my nor their sense of humour better than the other’s. Dreadful characterisation? There aren’t all that many book characters for whom I’d feel so much empathy as for Peter Thompson, the main one here – but also for Dr Jones, and some others as well. (Not that there aren’t a few things I find disgusting about Peter – but so there are about my best friends.) And so forth.

What on the other hand did piss me off, and that a great deal, was the first paragraph which reads like this:

Bored (and boring) thirty seven year old, work-avoiding British layabout inherits his father’s company only to find it on the verge of bankruptcy. He cheats on long time girlfriend, who is desperately hearing her biological clock. Then he gets involved with the Russian underworld in an attempt to save his failing business and pay back the money supposedly owing to the taxman.

Now Mr Thompson didn’t inherit his father’s company. For one thing, his father isn’t mentioned once in the book, even in passing; for another, the book’s almost explicit about the firm having been started by Peter, describing how he’d got the idea for it. And it’s only facing bakruptcy after seven years, some of which were very successful.

The other two sentences are about as correct as the first.

So for months I meant to post there another review. Not to make the book look better – the stars do that better than any review – but to set the record straight. It’s one thing when somebody doesn’t like a book you love – it’s another when they scold it while obviously knowing bugger-all about it. And today I eventually buckled down to it, wrote it and posted it. Here it is:

If the cover misleads you into believing that Le Carré was reincarnated in the author, you’ll probably be disapppointed. There are surprising twists in the plot all right, but they’re often rather far-fetched. More importantly though, reading this book for its plot is as mistaken as reading, say, Raymond Chandler as you would Agatha Christie. In this case, the book is mostly about middle-class midlife crisis, and the story just a pretext for cynical observations about that – and about today’s Western world as a whole..

For me this is one of those books you sometimes open just to read this or that single passage once again, even though you know it almost by heart – because you enjoy it so. The more so as, although some nine tenths of the book are in the form of the main character’s (a “hero” by no means, in whatever sense of the word) narration, they’re interspersed by brief glimpses at some of the other characters and their views of life, some of which (those passages) are just as funny. Funny in the wry way.

(BTW as regards the previous review – the main character did not inherit the company, but founded it; it’s only going bankrupt after seven years, precisely because of cooked bookkeeping; he’s not cheating on a “long time girlfriend” but on his wife, and so on. Frankly, I gather there’s a film based on the book and suspect the reviewer may have got the two mixed up.)

And here’s the link, in case you don’t believe me ;-).



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