Review: Black Gum by J David Osborne

Having read a couple of Osborne’s previous works (Low Down Death Right Easy and Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit), and having found them both rather impressive, I’ve had my eye on Black Gum for some time. And I’m glad to tell you it didn’t disappoint.

Originally, I think Osborne pegged the project as a direct sequel to Low Down, in that Danny Ames (one of the main characters in that novel) plays a major part in the proceedings. But somewhere along the way the project seems to have changed and become something else, something different. Ames only appears in the last third of the book, in a small, though significant, cameo, and the book itself feels different in tone and texture to its predecessor. The narrator is a bit of a man-child who lives with an old friend after the failure of his marriage. They deal drugs, have parties, and hang out with the friend’s strange cousin, Shane; and generally they just exist in a vacuum where life is the stuff that happens to other people.

Whereas Low Down felt like a surreal crime drama, Black Gum feels more like a naturalistic drama with an element of crime running through it. The moments of weirdness that punctuate Osborne’s LDDRE are mostly missing here – consisting instead of minor details weaved into the main text (Shane’s body modification, Juggalo parties, the narrator’s strange trip at the end of book). It is also a very short work – more novella than novel – but that intensifies rather than diminishes the book’s impact.

Black Gum has a Carver-esque clarity to it, insofar as its simple, well-written, pared-back prose gets on with telling the story without the need for posturing and posing. What little action there is done without grandstanding; instead, it has more in common with the blink-and-you’ll miss them moments of real life. I liked that Danny Ames’ one-and-only appearance here is done without any real violence (he appears, the characters realise resistance is futile and do what they’re told).

If you’re looking for balls-to-the-wall crime action you won’t find it here, but what you will find is quality, character-based fiction with criminality weaved through it. Black Gum comes highly recommended.

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Review: Amsterdam Rampant by Neil Cocker

Fin McPhail is having a difficult time out in Amsterdam. He’s getting over the break-up of his marriage (and a resulting case of sexual dysfunction) by throwing himself into his job as a marketing specialist for Cloudburn Whisky. The problem is, after a bright start, his ideas about local folklore aren’t really selling any more, his US boss is looking to fire him. He’s given the weekend to come up with ideas to save his job. Things get even worse when a particularly brutal treatment for his impotence by a ‘sex therapist’ results in him accidentally knocking a prostitute on conscious and running away in fear. The problem is compounded by the fact he accidentally leaves his phone in the brothel, and is soon contacted by a ‘psycho pimp’, which makes the weekend of his soon-to-be brother-in-law’s stag do that much more difficult. Things inevitably go awry, and Fin has to try and save his job, rescue the groom, and deal with his problems in any way he can.

Not knowing Neil Cocker, other than through his blog, or his previous short works, I started Amsterdam Rampant armed only with a few reviews (some of them by other Brit Grit authors). I expected it to be Irvine Welsh-lite (several Amazon reviews pegged it as such), but it really isn’t. The dialogue has some Scottish phonetics, but they are  scaled back from the kind of verbal pyrotechnics Welsh is renowned for (maybe that’s why some readers made the comparison). Certainly, the shenanigans the stags get up to are relatively tame in comparison with what Welsh writes, and Cocker seems more concerned with relationships than his compatriot (Welsh, for all his strengths, is a much more adroit writer of set-pieces than he is at documenting human frailties and partnership difficulties). Fin McPhail (Mcfailure to some of his friends) is a fine character and narrator, and there’s compassion and yearning in his voice. He also has a good eye for Amsterdam’s details and nice descriptive skills in his scene-setting, plus a solid sense of how to pace his narrative. It does all get wrapped up a little too neatly at the end, almost with a big bow on it, but that’s a minor caveat (and probably just a case of me being finicky), because this is an entertaining and very well written novel. Highly recommended.