Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman

As opening paragraphs go, they don’t come much more arresting:

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party. I like to think that even in the busy autumn of 1940, Hitler might have found time to organise a surprise party for his close friend — pretending for weeks that the date had slipped his mind, deliberately ignoring the Propaganda Minister’s increasingly sulky and awkward hints, and waiting until the very last order had been dispatched to his U-boat commanders on the evening of Tuesday, 29th October before he led Goebbels on some pretext into the cocktail lounge of the Reich Chancellery. A great shout of Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!, a cascade of streamers, some relieved and perhaps even slightly tearful laughter from Goebbels himself as he embraced the Fuhrer, and the party could begin.

What does this tell us about our narrator? He knows a lot — perhaps too much — about the Nazis. He’s can empathise with people that the rest of us despise. And he can draw us into places that we might not want to go. All of these turn out to be true of Kevin ‘Fishy’ Broom, so called because he suffers from a rare condition called trimethylaminuria, which makes its sufferers smell of rotting fish. Fishy is a minor collector of Nazi memorabilia, his own collection paid for by his work on behalf of a major one, a gruesome property developer called Horace Grublock; and the catalyst for the novel is his discovery, in a just-murdered man’s freezer, of a letter from Adolf Hitler to a eugenicist named Philip Erskine.

They are true, too, of Boxer Beetle, a story peopled with horrible characters, bursting with violent sex and sexual violence, the whole thing marinated in disgust (“He had a mole on his neck with six wiry hairs sticking out out it, as if a spider had been shot from a catapult and embedded itself in his flesh”). But despite this it’s a curiously sympathetic novel, playful, tender and alive. It’s also exquisitely structured, cutting between Fishy’s modern-day quest and 1930s London, where Eskine comes across a young and brilliant Jewish boxer, Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach. At just 4’11”, Sinner is tiny but lethal (particularly if “you’d been unlucky enough to meet him on a night when he still had half a fight caged in him”) and, in his own way, very beautiful, and Erskine isn’t sure whether to experiment on him or fall in love. And so he does both, with consequences that will reach into the future, and determine Fishy’s fate.

The writing is witty (“Erskine’s heart caught like a toe in a mousetrap”) and luxurious, often self-consciously so: there are moments here that feel like Sophie’s Choice rewritten by Lemony Snicket.

The morning light peeked in through the windows of the mortuary, pasty and trembling like the sort of ghoulish little boy who would rather see a dead girl than a naked one.

At best this gives us wonderfully vivid descriptions:

Erskine’s sister was twenty-two years old, pretty, with wavy brown hair pinned up behind her head to reveal a dull shine across her cheekbones like old scuffed velvet … Her eyebrows were at a permanent ironic tilt, as if she were waiting patiently for the rest of the world to throw down its cigarette, abandon the charade and admit how absolutely ridiculous it was.

The risk is that, for all its surface dazzle, the book can’t make us care, and there’s certainly a tension between the novel’s own arched eyebrow and its dark historical heart. There’s a long section set in New York where the wit (and prose style) melts away, as if the weight of the subject had briefly crushed its spirit: Beauman feels much more comfortable in the witty, decadent Colony Club. The split between modern-day and historical sections also feels unbalanced: I could have done with more of Fishy, and less of Erskine’s beetle hunts.

Despite its flaws, however, this is a boxer beetle of delights: dark, decadent, disgusting but never less than riveting, and a shot in the arm (or punch in the face) for British fiction: as the grandees of the book world gather for next week’s Man Booker prize, you can bet that somewhere Seth Roach will be pissing in the soup.

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