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A smoker’s tale

Will Self’s The Butt
By JAMES PARKER  |  October 8, 2008

SILVER HAZE: The hoaxy, displaced, reality-TV feel is part of the recipe here — as is Henderson the Rain King.

The Butt | By Will Self | Bloomsbury | 368 pages | $26
Somehow one is surprised — if one is a semi-conscious literary journalist like me — by the discovery that Will Self has continued to produce books. So dashing and weird and telegenic a figure did he cut back in the early ’90s, when The Quantity Theory of Insanity and My Idea of Fun were coming out, that it seems he should have broken up by now, like a band, or passed onto some other, fresher phase of notoriety, like a housemate from The Surreal Life. Still, a writer writes, always (as Billy Crystal tells his students in Throw Momma from the Train), and here we are with his seventh novel, The Butt, the surprisingness of which is compounded by the fact that it’s very good indeed. 

Tom Brodzinski, vacationing en famille in a Third World tourist trap, flicks his cigarette end off the hotel balcony; it lands with a flesh-creasing hiss upon the scalp of an elderly fellow guest, whereupon Tom is pitched into a netherworld of liability and tribal justice, attorneys and witch doctors. As part of the reparation proceedings, a local medicine man makes a ritual incision in Tom’s thigh: “The makkata closed in on Tom and knelt. He was clickety-clacking with his slack dry purse lips.”

Devout viewers of reality TV will of course be reminded of the Discovery Channel’s 2006 series Going Tribal and the famous “penis inversion” undergone by its host, Bruce Parry, among the Kombai tribesmen of West Papua. “The makkata’s breath was now on the front of his [Tom’s] shorts, and Tom could smell it despite the vegetal rot of the jungle.” The hoaxy, displaced, reality-TV feel is part of the recipe here. Add a dollop of Kafka’s The Trial, one small Joseph Conrad (peeled and sliced), half a Graham Greene, a squirt or two of Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, and simmer it all over a low Flann O’Brien. . . . Mmm, tasty!

Style-wise, Self appears unchanged from his earliest days — still the donnish flourishes of vocab, still the satirically enlarged squeamishness. “The hotdog was ruined now — a bit of medical waste on a wad of bloodstained sutures.” There’s a bit of creaking and gear clashing at the beginning of the book, as the author gets himself in the mood. (“Jesus Christ! Tom internally expostulated.”) And he does tend to push his luck with the similes: “then, at last, like a strained-for ejaculation, the hiss of the rains.” Well, if you say so. But the book’s real action takes place not on the page but through it — in the up-is-down future-primæval desert through which Tom must travel, with a strange person called Brian Prentice at his side, to atone for his original offence.

That offence, it will be remembered, had to do with smoking. The Butt is very much a smoker’s, or an ex-smoker’s, book: the offensive cigarette itself was supposed to be Tom’s last, and he suffers through the mystical states of non-being incurred by an attempt to kick the habit. The late Joe Strummer, in one of his if-I-ruled-the-world moments, proclaimed that people who don’t smoke should be banned from enjoying the creative fruits of people who do. And he had a point: why should the pious non-smoker, with lungs unblemished and childlike, be allowed to read books, hear music, etc., produced by artists who coughed themselves to death at the altar of nicotine? The brilliance, range, and focus of The Butt does indeed suggest the operations of a powerful mind in a silver haze. Buy it, non-smokers, before Strummer’s word becomes law.

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