Reviewed by James Bacon
Funny man Robert Rankin does it again with running gags and humour and tall tales using urban legends and myths to create a laugh out read. With a Free CD too, mad stuff.
That’s what you expect to hear, isn’t it? when you read a Rankin review, be honest.
The story is funny, has gags and is an adventure yet it departs from the expected by being tremendously unnerving and a little disquieting as Rankin dips into the uncomfortable subject he seems to know a lot about, the misfirings of the mind. I realised by the second chapter that this was going to be a disconcerting read when a usual recognisable farfetched path, one where we expect that Rankins writings will twist into hilarious absurdity suddenly ended abruptly in a dead end, with the protagonist realising that he had imagined it all and is quite mad. It was the Hitchcock moment, without the bomb.
Our man Johnny Hooker is quite bonkers, in a realistic way. If you met him, and I have, let’s say on the tube, well you’d move away, he has that look, nothing overt just enough to trigger your pigeon holing self survival system that would say, ‘other end of the carriage’. In the story he goes through a good old Rankin tale, we have a conspiracy, an unfortunate main character, both brave and cowardly and at times confused, a team of baddies projecting thoughts into the minds of the powerful, and the slapstick humour and toot in the bar. Johnny has to save the world, but he is already dead, or that’s what the police and his mom think, and he doesn’t want to upset her by telling her he is alive, as she is surely happier that he is no longer such a burden as he was when alive. It’s pantomime and pandemonium and there is fun and laughs and it’s a good story. Some of the laughter is derivative of how Johnny deals with the monkey in his head, that pops out and dances around and makes suggestions, and is an annoyance to Johnny and annoying distraction at times to the reader also.
I yearned for the story of Johnny and not that damn monkey, annoying damn monkey, always interfering and making useless suggestions to Johnny, getting in the way and being a nuisance, why won’t it just shut up and leave Johnny alone, little troublesome git. Though the monkey is a figment of Johnny’s imagination, isn’t it? So how can I hate the monkey? He is evil incarnate, obviously a disciple of the devil. Why do I hate the monkey? Is the monkey Johnny? I like Johnny though. Shit the monkey said that, jesus. Is the monkey real at all?
The story is concerned with the Devils music, and a theory about the great Black guitarist from the 30’s, who is credited with influencing dozens of rock legends, Robert Johnson and cracking a code.
We all know that today’s modern Britain is a great one, we endorse equality of religion, race, sexuality and thoughts. When I was racially abused in my job, not only was it taken seriously a welcoming committee of staff and securities were on hand to meet the offender with police only a call away. Yet when I was in the supermarket last night, a woman talking to herself and obviously ‘touched by the hand of god’ as we would say at home, or just special maybe, was the subject of much disguised mocking by a mixed bunch of employees laughing. That doesn’t figure does it?
As a society we are not so good with dealing with mental instability, and Rankin really starts to mess with the readers head. Then using a variety of overtly crass and racist jokes, at times by the damn monkey he further unsettles the reader and one feels uncomfortable and on edge.
Yet all the time, up to the end, although we have sympathy with Johnny, it’s a from the sidelines type of sympathy for any heroic leading figure, it’s just occasionally funny that he has voices in his head isn’t it. Not so funny when the voices are nasty to us as well as the Johnny though or when Rankin mixes something a little raw into his tale with the very acceptable absurd, just to slightly put the reader out of kilter. A bit like Johnny’s mind that.
From beneath Rankin’s regular good humoured storytelling, he manages to provoke a more thoughtful underlying and jarring riff. There have always been messages and meanings in his stories, they are not just the oft portrayed cheap laughs, yet many will read this book and just laugh and enjoy it. There are laughs what with the variety of weapons the police are armed with and the tea with the parson and the toot talking bar lord, but it has been said that all comedy is intrinsically sad, this story in parts points out the tragedy which can be a disturbed mind in a good person.
I haven’t mentioned the free CD, a soundtrack to the book, with performances by Robert and other bands and items such as The Sugar Plum fairy on steel pans and Johnny Hooker too. Normally I would rave about the CD, it’s just I am a bit more affected by the book than normal. Sorry.
The ending to this book struck a poignant note; it was a bit of a departure really compared to the usual feel good factor that emanates from this author. But then there is nothing funny about insanity or normal about Rankin’s writing. More to this than the cover.
This was published in Vector, The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association.