Fat and sassy, vulgar and brainy, Nicola Barker's "Darkmans" lands in American bookstores with a rude plop. Not only has its publisher skipped a hardcover release and issued it straight to trade paperback, but the book hasn't even been re-typeset -- it comes with its Britishisms ("focussed," "colour") intact, and set in the same eye-jarring sans-serif typeface with the same perplexingly inconsistent paragraph indentations as the English edition. Is this any way to treat a major novel, a savory hybrid of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace (with a dash of Stephen King), short-listed for the Booker Prize and radiantly praised in its native press?
No doubt the publisher's trepidation arises from how very English "Darkmans" is. Some of the discrepancies can be more or less managed by a game American reader with Internet access. For example, one point of plot hinges on a set of antique "tiles" stolen from a condemned historic building; it wasn't until a character climbs up on a roof and begins pelting passersby with the tiles he finds there that I figured out that these tiles are a type of terra cotta shingle (for which the region of Kent, where the novel is set, is famous), not the ceramic stuff covering my bathroom floor.
Less translatable is the novel's attitude toward Ashford, a "new town" -- meaning a recently built suburb, much like any other middle-class housing development, although Ashford is located at the terminus of the Channel Tunnel. Ashford exists, without distinction or texture, in a web of highways, which is why the book's characters spend a lot of their time in cars or trucks and on motorcycles, rather like Los Angelenos. But the American tradition of reviling suburbs for their soullessness is based on the idea that these neighborhoods are noplaces, built over formerly blank spots on the map; in England the maps have no blank spots. What gets torn down or paved over to build a new town is usually an old town, and instead of erecting their subdivisions over some blameless stretch of nature, the British construct their suburbs over a festering swamp of history.
That's the theme of "Darkmans," the story of two men, father and son, named Daniel and Kane Beede, who conceive of themselves as complete opposites. The elder Beede (called only by his last name, which echoes "the Venerable Bede," an eighth-century monk known as the father of English history) believes in the virtues of the past, in honor and rectitude, modesty and hard work. "There's far too much talking nowadays," he pronounces. "Too much pointless self-analysis, too much endless venting ... we need to become more resilient, more reserved, a little less self-indulgent. How a person behaves is the best possible demonstration of who they are. Not how they feel, but how they act."
Kane, his son, regards Beede as an insufferable, self-righteous stiff, "the hair shirt in human form." Kane has made it his life's work to get by on easy charm and minimal labor. He is "magnificently quiescent ... easy as a greased nipple (and pretty much as moral)." To his father's everlasting chagrin, Kane makes a living selling prescription drugs pilfered from the very hospital where Beede works running the laundry.
Both men (who, like yin and yang, are inextricably linked and therefore live together) are smitten with a chiropodist (trans.: podiatrist) named Elen. She may or may not be the meekest, gentlest, most selfless female in town, but her husband, Dory, an Englishman raised in an austere German sanatorium, certainly seems mentally ill, and her little boy, Fleet, is more than a bit odd. The kid is obsessed with building a fantastically detailed model of a medieval French cathedral out of matchsticks, and he possesses comprehensive knowledge of the life of John Scogin, court jester to Edward IV (1442-1483), derived from sources unknown.
The novel's swirling narrative mostly revolves around the antics of Dory, who intermittently becomes possessed by what eventually appears to be the spirit of the same John Scogin. A reckless, clever, amoral and sometimes cruel fellow, Scogin was infamous for his theatrical farting, for tormenting the queen with unfounded accusations of adultery, for setting fire to a church full of beggars (casualties, if any, unknown), and for his wit. Having been commanded by the king never to set foot on English soil again, Scogin hopped the Channel, filled up his shoes with French dirt and came back home, claiming that as long as he kept the shoes on, he hadn't disobeyed his sovereign's orders. A collection of Scogin's jokes was among the first English-language books ever printed.
Language is another theme of this novel, evidenced not just in Barker's bravura prose, but also in moments when her characters suddenly lose their grip on the English word they're trying to utter and come out with whatever ancient Anglo-Saxon or Latin root it derived from. Etymologists can deduce a surprising amount of cultural history from analyzing words, and this appears to be Barker's point: However we may try to pave over the past, it keeps seeping through the sleek surfaces of modern life, through the very language we speak, rank and vicious, but also vital -- just like the ghost of John Scogin. Beede's idealization of the good old days may be delusional, but so is Kane's conviction that they can be summarily forgotten.
As the novel goes along, Scogin's memories and impulses bleed into the psyches of Beede and Kane as well. There are unexplained incidents of violence. A malevolent black starling appears on several occasions to tweak the gothic quotient. But Scogin's is only the most dramatic of the hauntings in the book. Most of the supporting characters -- a profane teenage girl from the local clan of reprobates, a Kurdish laborer with an irrational dread of lettuce, and a mysterious forger with the ludicrously false name of Peta Borough (i.e., Peterborough, what Kane calls "one of Britain's most pedestrian towns) -- also turn out to be grappling with the unsuspected influence of their own ancestries.
Nevertheless, the novel's attitude toward history remains a bit slippery -- known, rather than felt by this reader -- which I'm chalking up to cultural dissonance. For Americans, history tends to be reduced to either ideological nostrums (the principles of our Founding Fathers, etc.) or sin (slavery). The experience of living right on top of -- in the thick of -- a few thousand years of local history, layers and layers of it, is alien not only to our actual experience but to our national personality. The characters in "Darkmans" are, in a way, trying to be American; Dory dreams of "a clean slate, a new dawn." But they can only fail. The fresh, bland new town they've built for themselves, Dory soon realizes, is infested with history, "Growing like a fungi. Spreading. Encroaching." Try as they might, these people are irrevocably, terminally English.