Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Lowlife - Alexander Baron


Alexander Baron  (1917-99) wrote fourteen novels and a dozen or so TV scripts.  The Lowlife, from 1963, is a classic London novel, in a line direct from Tom Jones to Oliver Twist.  The key to a London novel is the focus on the city within - or below - the city of commerce and pomp.  The scene here is Hackney, specifically not the East End as Baron points out, but a quietly fading community of bedsits and flats.

Everyone in Baron's fictional world is a lowlife.  Hero-narrator Harryboy Boas, is a gambler who occasionally does a bit of Hoffman pressing when he finds himself in need of cash.  Otherwise he stays in his room in Ingram's Terrace and reads classic novels or sleeps until it's time to go to the dog track.  Harryboy is forty-five years old and the nearest thing he has to a girlfriend is a West End courtesan rising forty.  Nobody in this world has a regular 'straight' job.  The nearest approximation is Harryboy's brother-in-law Gus, a bookmaker, and book-keeper Vic, who moves his family into the downstairs flat thus inciting the plot, who wants to qualify as a company secretary so he can indulge in what today we call insider trading.

The plot is seamless - it seems to be nothing yet it keeps on going, finally sparking into real jeopardy for Harryboy.  The sequence in which he very nearly gets his come-uppance only to (briefly) come up trumps is genuinely exciting.  The subsequent twist, coming out of nowhere as things do in real life, was beautifully achieved.

Baron's writing is simply magnificent, note-perfect throughout.  He sets out to evoke a world, familiar yet unknown, and does so completely.  His characters are all multi-faceted, right down to the cringing landlord and the courteous little gangster.  There are no stereotypes.  Everybody has value, even Vic's appalling wife Evelyn.

I adored this book and can't wait to get hold of another.  Strip Jack Naked, King Dido - the titles alone call out to me.

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