by John Boland

By Greg Baxter. Penguin Ireland, 14.99 sterling

At the outset of this book, the narrator finds himself surrounded by the naked calves of women as he retrieves some dropped change in a Dame Street shop. “I wanted to lick them,” he says of these calves. “I often feel one drink away from whatever makes a dog hump women’s legs.” Fortunately for him, he imbibes enough liquor to ensure that for much of the ensuing 200 pages he’s humping his way through half the women in Dublin’s fair city.

The author is an American in his mid-thirties who’s been living in Ireland for the last decade and he describes his book as an autobiography, though for much of the time I had the odd sense that I was reading fiction – not just because of the narrator’s prodigious sexual success rate (which perhaps is just enviable), but more crucially because of the artfully created  persona on display here, which is one part degenerate Henry Miller to one part alienated Fernando Pessoa, with more than a soupcon of venemous Louis Ferdinand Celine stirred in for good measure – or, to make it more local, The Ginger Man with a blinding hangover and a bad attitude.

Whatever the influences, our anti-hero is angry – angry at society, conformity, drudgery, you name it, but mostly at himself for being a failed creative writer who’s reduced to working for a medical magazine (Baxter has worked for the Irish Medical Times) – and throughout the book such words as “resentment”, “contempt”, “rage”, “bitterness” and “loathing” testify to his general state of mind.

Solipsistic to a fault, he frets that he had “spent many years trying to interpret existence when I ought to have been squandering it,” but the reader (or at least the male reader) may well feel jealous of  his capacity for squandering as he recounts in exhuberant anatomical detail the physical attributes and voracious sexual preferences of the various women he encounters in his search for the meaning of life.

It’s these encounters that give the book its furious edge and will probably gain it some notoreity, too, though some of them seem more the product of porno fantasy than of real life – less what women want than what men like to think they want. And, as in porn, the reader finds it increasingly difficult to differentiate the latest woman from the last – they’re all just there gagging for it from this drink-fuelled, priapic nihilist, with wetness “pouring out” of one of them, another “so wet it was like f..king in mud. It was coming down my legs, pooling on the staircase”, while yet another “gives head with the enthusiasm you only find in good Catholics.” Ah, yes, those horny Catholic girls, you couldn’t be up to them.

(Incidentally, all of these women are given first names. The author may be using pseudonyms to save their blushes, but if this truly is an autobiography they’ll know who they are and how Baxter regards them, and so will their friends).

Amid all the frenetic fornication, there are lengthy detours to his relations in Vienna, to his separated parents in Texas and to a writers’ conference in Tennessee, but these have the feel of free-standing reminiscences written for another occasion, and the author’s attempts to make them relevant to his essentially Dublin-based narrative – and integral to the shape of the book – are forced and unconvincing.

Similarly unpersuasive are his strainings for a greater philosophical and aesthetic significance than the book can sustain, with such frequent utterances as “I want this sentence to forgive me” and “I am the dream of what I see” and “Whatever society degrades, genius ennobles”, which seem to have strayed in from an undergraduate’s earnest journal. And on a more mundane note, while he tells us at the outset that in 2007 “my marriage had ended” we learn nothing more about that failed episode, which is curious in a book otherwise so obsessed with the particularities of sexual relationships.

However, there’s a real imaginative energy and literary talent at work here, though it’s more fruitfully  employed when the author is gleefully recording his experience of Dublin’s manic mean streets than when he’s solemnly searching for personal redemption. And by the time he comes to write his next book – perhaps the novel he so agonisingly fails to produce during this one – perhaps he’ll have learnt the meaning of “disinterested”, which he misuses four times.

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