The Book of Man

Scott Baldinger reviews Barry Graham's novel "The Book Of Man"

Published December 16, 1995 8:00PM (EST)

If ever there was a race less suited, physiologically, to the drinking and drugging so central to its literary culture, it must be the British. Dissolution is the ostensible motif in the works of Malcolm Lowry, Martin Amis, and Will Self, among others -- but the real joke is that their characters just can't stomach what they relentlessly pump into their bloodstreams; they are, despite their hard living, better suited to a cup of tea in a comfy bedsit.

Vomiting is the running gag (if you will) in Barry Graham's "The Book of Man." The novel details the relationship of Kevin Previn, a young Glasgow poet and playwright, with a heroin-addicted bisexual writer named Michael Illingworth, who was Previn's artistic mentor in his student days. Illingworth has died from AIDS, and Previn returns to Glasgow to research a BBC documentary about him. The novel begins as a series of emetic flashbacks: the pair first meet in a disco when a drunken Previn vomits on Illingworth while the latter is sitting on the toilet; of course they become best friends. Previn knows it's love with his wife-to-be when she vomits on him after sampling Illingworth's heroin (in Scotland, love obviously doesn't mean having to aim better). They have a child, whose bodily functions are also explicitly-detailed.

"The Book of Man" is, despite its interest in excreta, both liberal-hearted and sensible, a sweet-natured tale with a decent, likable hero who is just trying to sort it all out. No Amis-like schadenfreude here -- Previn loves and respects his mentor, even though Illingworth refused to see him in the last ten years of life (his attempt to overcome his drab Glasgow origins). A little more self-probing of the non-bulimic kind would have turned an interesting story into a shattering one.

By Scott Baldinger

Scott Baldinger is a New York-based journalist. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times and Out.

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