In which Netty finishes a book she started 20 years ago, but finds more Ass than Angel …

May 31, 2010

Regular readers of this blog know its premise – that Andy and I choose and then work our way through a list of books neither has read previously. We may have read other tomes by the author in question, but not the book itself. Hence …

I first picked up a copy of Nick Cave’s first novel And The Ass Saw The Angel (which, contrary to my more base partner-in-blogs, I will herewith refer to as Angel) a year or so after it was first published, in 1988. I read about three, maybe five pages, and promptly gave up on it as a largely impenetrable, drug-addled mess of a book. So it’s taken me about 20 years to get around to finishing it (which is actually not too bad an effort for someone who could procrastinate for Australia … after all, Angel was April’s ANRC10 book and you’re now reading this blog in June … ahem …)

And after all these years, guess what? It’s still a largely impenetrable, drug-addled mess of a book. Andy’s already filled you in a bit on Angel’s gestation; further, it started life as a screenplay entitled Swampland and was several years in the making, during a period where Cave moved from London to Berlin and at the height of his heroin addiction (interviews have stated he has been clean since the late 1990s). Significantly, Andy and I made the deliberate choice to read the 2009 version of Angel, which the book jacket states has been “significantly revised” by its author (although, most unfortunately, glaringly lacks a forward or preface from Cave). Part of me is a little tempted to tackle the original version, for comparative purposes, but quite frankly, it ain’t gonna happen, folks. One reading is enough for one lifetime, methinks. Listen.

It’s nigh-on impossible to discuss Cave the author without referencing Cave the musician, especially as the two mine the same vein of material. The themes that propagate Angel are the same ones found in his work with the Bad Seeds, particularly the band’s 1980s output. Cave has always been fascinated by Americana, particularly the gothic-steeped deep south, by biblical themes (Cave, raised an Anglican, authored the forward to The Gospel According to Mark in the late 1990s and has claimed an affinity with the fire-and-brimstone sentiments of the Old Testament), by drugs, murder, madness, violence and death. All of which are present, and in spades, in Angel.

Set in America’s deep south in the 1930s through to the late 1950s, Angel tells the story of the people of Ukulore Valley, and specifically of Euchrid Eucrow, a poverty-stricken, outcast mute, who narrates most of the book. His father Ezra escapes his violent, inbred, hillbilly clan, and lands in the valley, only to meet up with the drunken, slovenly widow Crow Jane (the story of their union is a black comedy of errors) and forge an existence of matrimonial hell on the township’s outskirts. The town, built on the twin foundations of fundamentalist religion and a prosperous cane-sugar industry, is brought to its knees by three years of rain.

Euchrid grows up with a father who traps and tortures animals and a mother who distills and drinks moonshine (particularly a drop called White Jesus) and abuses her spouse and surviving son (Euchrid’s twin brother is stillborn, echoing the Bad Seeds’ 1985 album The Firstborn Is Dead, its title telling the real-life story of Elvis Presley, himself a sole surviving twin). From the outset, Euchrid doesn’t have a hope in hell against the ignorant, bigoted, crazed fundamentalists of his hometown, who in turn loathe him.

The break in the rains coincides with the discovery of a baby girl, the child of a whore beaten to death by the townspeople, who is deemed a prophet and revered throughout the valley, particularly by its womenfolk. Euchrid is initially suspicious of the child, Beth, but eventually becomes obsessed with her. After the not-unexpected death of his parents, he slowly becomes unhinged, developing messianic tendencies, experiencing religious visions and establishing himself as the monarch of a filthy kingdom he dubs Doghead. Of course, it can’t end well, and it doesn’t, but the final, unexpected (for me, anyways) twist in the tale brings the story full circle.

Andy disagrees with me about its “impenetrability”, and maybe that’s a bit too harsh on my part. Certainly, it is a difficult read, but one also that is not particularly enjoyable, especially after Euchrid really starts to mentally disintegrate. Cave’s overblown, florid descriptions of the filth, the muck, the stench, of sores, scabs, blood – well, I just wanted to have a shower after I had finished it. It’s impossible to tell how much of the book has been reworked in this “revisit”, but I still found it disjointed, especially with chopping and changing of the narrative. Sure, there are engrossing moments of real spark (the opening chapter where Euchrid describes his birth and the loss of his twin is a deft combination of humour and the heartfelt) but there are also pretentious, tedious and downright turgid passages. And for mine, the bad by far outweighs the good.

Cave’s second novel, The Death Of Bunny Munro, was published last year, to mixed reviews. I had always intended to knock over Angel first. And Bunny Munro is still on my radar, although I’m going to opt for the spoken-word version. Cave reads over instrumentation courtesy of fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis. ‘Cos at the end of the day, I’m always going to be a fan of Cave the musician rather than Cave the novelist. Sorry, Nick. We can still be friends, right?

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