Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Adventures of the Pisco Kid - A Review

I met Michael Standaert, after reading on his blog that he'd written a novel, was in Beijing and was looking for people to review it. I e-mailed him to say that I was interested, having read a review on another site which looked intriguing.

We met up for the launch party of the book which was a small but enjoyable affair at Hutong Pizza along with a few other friends. After that we met up in Beijing regularly, though not frequently enough and I was sad to say goodbye to him, his wife and all the other friends I met through them, I'm looking forward to catching up with them next time I'm back in Beijing. As a parting gift I received a signed copy of his book, and one of the few to have made its way to China.

Of late, the only time for reading has been between about 1.30 and 2 in the morning when I'm trying to slow down before sleep. However reading The Adventures of the Pisco Kid, is not an exercise in slowing down.

If Kafka were to have gone to Las Vegas on a drugs bender, or Hunter S Thompson had tried to rework The Trial, they may have come up with something along the lines of The Adventures of the Pisco Kid. Surreal, satirical, moody, funny, chaotic and extremely eloquent, it's rather difficult to write a review about this book and not look like I'm simply writing a good review for a friend. However, I promise this isn't the case!

I started reading this with moderate to high expectations. Michael has been a journalist for the LA Times, has written for the Huffington Post and is now an editor for a Beijing magazine so I knew he knew what he was doing. However, the difference between a writer who can string a story along and someone who can play with words as Michael does is a huge one. The characters in the book have the wonderful caricature of those in A Confederacy of Dunces, the flaws in the characters melt off the page in a slimy mass of neurosis and physical repugnance, bringing the whole thing to life in a vast, Daliesque psychedelia.

We follow the adventures of Pisco, a boy found in the bull-rushes, adopted and bought up by a Jamaican, heavily Christian woman, filling him with skepticism and bitterness having set him up to be a modern-day Messiah. A rat-catcher, and rock band reject, Pisco gets ever deeper into a crazy world where he seems to have no say in how his is pin-balled from one calamity to another. Perhaps if Cervantes had lived in the '60s he would have given us something similar.

The language of the book flows fantastically, and although the author whom I write about most frequently (Steinbeck) is a minimalist when it comes to fancy word play, I'm very happy to read a book where the words and phrases have been picked carefully to develop a rich atmosphere. This is exactly what happens here, and I love it!

The story is punctuated by lyrics from the band that Pisco left before they became big, along with sayings from Navajo and Inuit and the words of Soft Cell and David Bowie. This only adds to the surrealism.

Michael would never really tell me what the book was about, and I shall not do so either, but would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of very witty and well crafted writing, and doesn't mind being taken on a surreal journey which makes the writing of Marquez or Bulgakov seem pretty plausible! I namedrop here simply because I was reminded throughout of the different styles of many of my favourite authors.

I have a good number of people in mind who will like this, though it's not for the faint-hearted reader. Let yourself be taken on the trip however and you'll be very pleased you did. I look forward to reading Michael's next novel, whenever that comes along.

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Michael has written a previous non-fiction book "Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire" which looks similarly intriguing if rather more scary.

2 comments:

Benjamin said...

Hi Jon. Sounds good. Have you written any books? I have ventured into Peter Carey's 'Wrong About Japan' recently and am reminded of conversations we have had in the past. Just popped in to say hello. Are you studying in Spain now?

Jonathan Shock said...

Hi Ben,

Good to hear from you! No, I haven't written any books. I hope to one day. I have some ideas but I fear that my ability to put what I believe to be interesting ideas into readable format may not be enough. One day, perhaps.

I don't know about Peter Carey's book but I have enjoyed what I've read from him in the past. Memories of Japan are still powerful for me.

Yes, I'm now working in Spain, and enjoying it, though currently I'm scooting around England and Ireland.

Hope you're well,

J