Saturday, July 18, 2009

Death by detail

Pat Hopkins, Johnny Golightly Comes Home: A Portrait of Eccentricity, Penguin, Johannesburg, 2009

The first half of this book is fairly engrossing. It is a curious weave and intertwining of the lives of the author, and a few selected South African eccentrics, whom he has sought out and tried to record, as much as he is able in this non-fictional novel.

It is frequently engaging, and often very interesting. However, and this is a very big “however” - it is also extremely irritating to read. Now, I don’t know whether this was supposed to be some kind of literary gimmick, or some carefully crafted mechanism to irritate the reader to the point of distraction (because the subject of the book was irritating the author throughout) – but really, it is a book very over-written. There is just far too much meaningless and useless information.

Conversations with every one the author ever meets in relation to his research, are recorded in minute, yawn-inducing detail, down to noting that the wind was blowing; or the cat was purring; or the dishwasher was washing; or the pot-plant was growing. This gets much worse in the second half of the book, which one only plods through to the end of out of a vague sense of curiosity, but it is there throughout. And it completely kills any enjoyment one might glean from it. As I say, that might be the point – I don’t know – but it has much the same artistic appeal as root canal treatment.

The subjects are fascinating, though I have to say for myself, I found the main subject John Anthony Boerma, tedious and affected. The others, such as the author's own father, “Bunny”, who grew Dagga, had constant affairs and eventually died in a shootout with police; Helen Martins and her Owlhouse in Niew Bethesda; Meredith Crimp - (not sure who she might be) - of Pietermaritzburg and her dog Prince Twinkletoes which would “raise a warning lip” whenever the author tried to ingratiate himself; Nukain Mubasa, who painted a mountain and of course Johnny Golightly, aka John Anthony Boerma, aka Johnny Gochristly, whose father and grandfather were Nazis.

But the detail! Oh dear Lord, the detail… It is there on every page, lurking in every corner, hiding under every bed. Every conversation, even on things like when to turn off the stove, or where to place boxes, get recorded lovingly. Why? How is the reader helped by engaging in this unbearable round of trivia. It’s a bit like reading “Big Brother”.

And this is, I think, a pity. Because the subject is a fascinating one. And some of insights of the subjects (real or fictional) are fascinating too. “Never start with a premise”, advises Meredith Crimp, “If you know where you’re going, there is no point in starting out. The only justification for travel is the unknown landscape – one that you discover for yourself”. (p.47). He remembers her observation, at the end of the book, that the only thing separating extreme eccentrics and serial killers, is their particular passion.(p.219).

But the dreary detail of how he gets to those insights, including a whole long, seemingly endless cataloguing on how he comes to writing the book he eventually does write, as opposed to the book he thought he was going to write, as opposed to bits and pieces he wrote along the way – is just uninteresting and could all have been cut with no-one other than the author noticing the difference, or needing the information.

And that is the other problem I have with the book. All the time, the author lurks in the background of other people's stories. While the story of his attempted suicide is both gripping and necessary, many of the other author appearances have more than just a hint of egotism. And this is a pity – because the subject is rich. That’s a given! It’s been done a gazillion times before. And because of that, I don’t really need to know that Bridget Hilton-Barber, or her friends, or the next-door neighbour, or the person he meets on a plane also think so, for goodness sake!

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