I enjoy the company of thugs, criminals, and unprincipled liars. The more disreputable the behaviour, the better, in my book. Strictly between the covers, of course. In real life, delinquents usually have the charisma of a dead trout left too long in the sun. But in the hands of high-quality writers, low-life characters keep us turning the pages, even as we hold our nose.
Happiness writes white, the saying goes, and who would remember Dr. Jekyll without his appalling alter ego? From John Self in Money to Bruce Robertson, the demoniac cop in Irvine Welsh’s unambiguously titled Filth, shifty narrators have gripped our imagination as they lay bare their mendacity, cruelty and vulgarity. My favourite literary bad boy is Mickey Sabbath, the eponymous protagonist of Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth. I think this is Roth’s finest novel, a vigorous, excessive, stylistically spellbinding, portrayal of male desire on the loose and off the rails. Sabbath is an old man raging against the dying of the light. A self-confessed “whoremonger, seducer, sodomist, abuser of women, destroyer of morals, ensnarer of youth”, Sabbath is one of Roth’s most memorable characters, a hilarious and scarifying portrayal of unbridled id.
Now, into this rogue’s galley steps Bunny Munro, a tragic-comic sex-crazed travelling salesman whose final days are unflinchingly examined in Nick Cave’s new novel. The reader requires a strong stomach to stay with this tale of a masturbation-addicted no-mark whose mind’s eye rarely wonders from female genitalia – those attached to Kylie Minogue and Avril Lavigne in particular.
Cave has set himself a mighty challenge for this, his long-awaited second novel. The reader accepts brutish behaviour when it is portrayed with elegance, wit and energy. If the style falters, the characters pall.
In an interview with The Bookseller, Cave says: “Some of the people who create the most beautiful things are the faultiest of characters.”
Cave, whose astonishing career I have followed with admiration, has given us one more work of dark splendour.