After reading The Adventures of Roderick Random
, I had vowed never again to read a picaresque novel. But, it didn't take long for me to break that vow. It seems that Alan Sillitoe wrote a trilogy of picaresque novels about the life and adventures of Michael Cullen, working-class bastard from Nottingham. I was given the third one to read and review. And so I have read it and will now provide a vague review of the book.
Apparently, back in the 1960s, Alan Sillitoe got enthralled by picaresque novels. The genre had first appeared in Spain in the 16th century and migrated through France to England where the genre was taken up by the likes of Tobias Smollett, who wrote Roderick Random
. Eventually, Sillitoe decided to try his hand, coming out with A Start in Life
in 1970, which chronicled the adventures of a young, Nottingham bastard, Michael Cullen. Some fifteen years later, he continued chronicling Cullen in Life Goes On
(1985). But, Sillitoe, it seems wasn't done with Cullen. The third book of his picaresque trilogy is to come out, posthumously, in August 2016. That's the volume I read, Mogerhanger
. The action in the books are all closer in time than the publication dates. I'm guessing that the action in Mogerhanger
is no later than the late 1970s or perhaps very early 1980s. It's not completely clear. I didn't pick up on any cultural clues to help me figure it all out, and I didn't bother reading the first two volumes to clarify things better. This book stands on its own reasonably well.
A Picaresque novel is a tale of the adventures of a picaro
, an engaging scoundrel who has much wit and charm, but who is morally ambiguous. He has no problems, in general, with womanizing and defrauding other people. The picaro
in this trilogy is Michael Cullen, born a bastard and brought up on the mean streets of Nottingham, presumably in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps even a bit of the 1940s. He has had a number of scrapes with the law and has spent time in gaol (to use the British spelling) for gold smuggling. For the latter, he was set up by his "boss", Claude Moggerhanger. Moggerhanger is a very rich and very unscrupulous man who has managed to buy himself a peerage. Cullen would like to knock Moggerhanger down a peg, but is unclear as to how to go about that. Moggerhanger is very
At the beginning of this book, Cullen has just quit his job in an advertising agency. He had been good at his work, he was a consummate liar, but he tired of the regular grind. So, he decided just to wander around for a while to see what will happen. His wife, Frances, is a medical doctor who is so busy that she'll hardly miss him, or something.
Next thing you know, Cullen has been hired by Moggerhanger to deliver some "special items" to Turkey and to pick up some other "special items" and return them to England. So we have adventures along the way where Cullen finds himself on a train with a woman, Sophie, he feels compelled to seduce. Then, he is being shadowed by a black van. He thinks he has lost the van after he contrives to lead it into an auto accident, which he contrives to avoid himself; but he hasn't. Just as he's about to be knocked up by the people in the van, his old buddy, Bill Straw, a guy who fancies himself rather a military type, shows up to save the day.
So they get to Turkey and back and Cullen is at loose ends again. Not so the guys in the black van, who are determined to hunt him down and "deal" with him. So we have more adventures, and perhaps some kind of conclusion. Read the book to find out what it might be.
Along the way, we meet some rather "interesting" characters. It seems that Cullen eventually gets to know his biological father, the famous novelist, Gilbert Blaskin. Blaskin actually makes most of his money writing pulp under the pseudonym of Sydney Blood. Occasionally, he farms out the actually writing of the Sydney Blood books to others, including Cullen and Bill Straw. Other strange relationships are discovered when Sophie returns to England and hooks up with Cullen again.
So, you have a rather charming, if amoral, hero; lots of adventures; lots of interesting characters. Sillitoe is a gifted writer who can mostly make this stuff work. On the other hand, this isn't really the kind of thing that would appeal to an elderly, repressed Calvinist, such as yours truly. So, when I can pretend I'm someone that I'm not, I see this as a very engaging and well written book. When I view it from my own personal perspective, it's not really my cup of tea, so to speak. I end up giving it 4*s because I expect that most readers aren't elderly, repressed Calvinists.