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Book review: <i>From Stockport With Love</i> by David Bowker



If this was a gadget from Q’s laboratory, it would be a flame-throwing bassinet.

Cover

A maroony-purple play on the old James Bond down-the-gun-barrel logo. Which, while we’re here, never made much sense, did it. Are we supposed to “be” the bullet? And if we are, what’s the blood meant to run down, after “we” get “shot”? To create this sequence in real life, you’d need to disassemble a gun, throw the bullets away, look down the now-useless barrel at your attacker, then let him shoot you in the forehead without killing you instantly, being sure to move the gun barrel slightly away from your face so as to allow a film of blood to run across the surface of your eyeball, without blinking. Which seems unlikely.

Plot

The main character, who, for the purposes of this paraphrasing, I shall call Neil, seems to have backed himself into a corner. His lovely wife has just given birth to their first child and, while Neil was fine during the pregnancy, now that the baby is a noisy reality he seems incapable of engaging in the fatherhood process. On top of this, his own father’s just had a stroke, Neil’s Mum’s a bit nutty, and his parents-in-law are useless, narcissistic bores. Instead of articulating, or even contemplating any of this, Neil prefers to watch, and contemplate, Bond films. Neil likes James Bond films A LOT. He loves them, really—loves them to the point that he sees all their flaws yet still loves them. In fact, he loves them to a degree which brings to mind only two words, being “Star” and “Trek”. Fortunately for us, however, Neil’s attraction to these nutrition-free pleasures is rooted deeply in his mind, in his masculinity, his childhood, his relationship with his father, and his subconscious, and is not (merely) based on how many limited-edition DVDs he owns. (All of them.) When Neil’s baby boy suddenly needs major surgery, its father’s mental state deteriorates into madness, sinking further and further into Fleming-flavoured fantasies of power and detachment. Can Neil break free before his inner 007 does something fatally ill-advised?

The good

This is simultaneously great fun and subtextually effective on so many levels that it’s difficult to believe it wasn’t partly inadvertent. The central characters are flawed, believable creations who it’s nonetheless hard not to love. The fact that there aren’t many (Neil, wife, Doc, Mum, and Dad are mostly it) helps, too, because this is primarily an internal novel. There’s physical action, sure, but unlike Bond, Neil’s great struggle takes place in his mind, and his actions are largely symptoms of his condition. Somehow, though, it’s every bit as thrilling to watch as the super spy’s latest car chase—more so, in fact, because the emotional stakes are a thousand times higher.

Nonetheless, what really sets this book apart is the James Bond angle. It would’ve been so easy for Bower to sink into cheap action-scene metaphors, silly fiction vs. reality comparisons or a worthless parody involving this (as he describes 007) “most celebrated emotional cripple”, and in truth he uses the cogs of these devices many times. Somehow, though, with this relatively simple engine, he manages to, in the space of one short novel:

  • a) use James Bond as a perfect symbol of impossible twentieth-century male icons that are poised to supersede our fathers as role models on the cusp of our manhood, and how this oxidizes the rapidly rusting chain of modern generational masculinity,
  • b) ask why these ideals of masculinity STILL associate manhood with emotional stonewalling,
  • c) illustrate how pop-culture has infected the young to a degree even baby boomers would probably be shocked to discover, and is almost impossible to explain to anybody older than forty,
  • d) question the function of men in today’s society through the eyes of a likeable, if rather mad, one, as Neil swings between the roles of an impossibly macho, almost digital, control of one’s life to that of a loving father and husband constantly at risk of drowning on the deck of a far-too-real emotional Titanic,
  • e) turn what could have been another depressing attempt at father-son angst into a must-read for anyone who even secretly envies James Bond (Neil does everything from unnecessarily quoting 007 to actually driving round France in a DB7 stopping at hotels and guest houses to partake of the exact over-priced, finicky and extraordinarily unhealthy diet that Fleming, and therefore Bond, did), yet takes the piss out of Fleming and Bond in a bittersweet, heartfelt-yet-jealous way that we can’t help but laugh at, and STILL somehow manages not to get all nerdy. In fact, grounds himself still further into reality with the use of Bond as a marker, therefore widening the poles his macho swings between, etc., etc., etc.

Not bad for something that’s also a blast to read and quite funny to boot.

The bad

This is a book about men, and unlike, say, Fight Club, it doesn’t even have an exciting female character—Neil’s wife’s joy, pity and concern about her husband and child keep her sympathetic, but her job is to be Neil’s, and thus the novel’s, lodestone of reality. She plays a rather thankless supporting role, in short. I lent this to a female friend and she wasn’t impressed with the main character, who defines the book—his behaviour towards his loved ones undoubtedly swings, at times, from the unreadably callous to the downright frigging mental. Hmm. Look. I will definitely admit that this is one of those books which I give the extra big pink kiss because it locks directly into my psyche. The question then becomes, “How universal is that part of my psyche?” To which I can only ask,

  • a) Is there stuff you haven’t told your Dad yet, and
  • b) Have you ever wanted to be James Bond?

The astute may note these questions can be paraphrased further into this one:

  • c) Are you male?

What I learnt

More than anyone non-fictional needs to find out about Bond.

That Ian Fleming knew a little about spies, less about guns, and fuck-all about women. And his lifestyle tips will get you exactly what he got, viz, an empty life and an early grave.

In short

/tr>

Title: From Stockport With Love
Author: David Bowker
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 0340738537
Year published: 1999
Pages: 258
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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