by Alan Trotter

Faber & Faber, £10

Review by Todd McEwen

‘ … He said that they were lucky if he didn’t take their little city from them and grind it under his heel. He said that a man who couldn’t at any moment point to a dozen necks he’d like snapped was a man without imagination who didn’t deserve to be in charge of a poem, let alone a city.’

It would be a clever reviewer who could discuss Muscle in the way that it should be discussed without spoiling it. What looks initially like an ultra-modern pastiche of the entire hard-boiled world, meaning every pulp novel ever written, good movies and bad, even whole ‘noir’ towns and people, turns out to be anything but that.

The plot, which is enormously dangerous to talk about, concerns some pretty lousy citizens and the depredations they practise on one another. There are two types on a train who might be Beckett’s Mercier and Camier, if they were hit-men. In between little assassinations, they discuss their calling with detached erudition:

‘Our own self-interest is not threatened,’ says Charles, ‘so the impulse that demands that society disapprove of our action doesn’t lash at us. If we punish ourselves, then we are holding ourselves to a higher standard than that to which society holds itself.’

‘And why,’ says Hector, ‘would it be reasonable to expect us to do that?’

The dialogue and the prose in Muscle flit effortlessly around the whole range of its sources and influences. Its prose is sullen, muzzy, droop-lidded. Some of it reads like a David Mamet play; there are undercurrents of Damon Runyon. There are utterances recognizable as pure Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Muscle’s inner logic, though highly poetic, is far superior to the junk in which it finds its origins.

There’s an unexpected side to this book, an element of pure, luridly coloured pulp fantasy, which Alan Trotter brilliantly locates as co-existing in the same time period with the elements of the crime fictions he’s playing with. What does a barely-educated thug do when he is tired of drinking, cards, and women – what does a thug read?

Which brings us to our sympathetic narrator, named Box. He is pure muscle, and assists a very hotheaded middle-level operator, represented in the text with the non-name ‘____’. Box and ____ are given periodic assignments applying pressure, or ‘easing the flow of regret’ as they like to put it. In a card game, Box meets Holcomb, a writer for pulp magazines, and one day while on stakeout, bored out of his mind, he reads one of Holcomb’s sci-fi stories.

At first he’s baffled by it, but then it comes to make sense to him, even to haunt him. There is something really unsettling yet amusing about a big bruiser like this, a truly dangerous guy, stumbling upon what may well be the only printed matter in this horrid town, or at least in this crumby neighbourhood, and finding it enlightening, even transformative: the only food for thought he will ever encounter.

Holcomb’s stories are about centuries, aeons, of intolerable waiting (which Box and ____ know something about) and finding a key to the nature of time. But not for a reason that is good. The stories are not sane, and it’s terrible to watch Box being drawn into their stupid way of thinking. At this point it’s like Jim Thompson has met HP Lovecraft, and they’re planning on getting married.

Things don’t turn out well for Box. He’s frustrated in love, and the business of beating people into various forms of pulp isn’t going too well. He begins to think that he can build a device like one in the stories, so that he can atone, sort out his existence. And it’s not a good idea, this horrible device that he wears on his head ‘like a nest made from refuse’. His own solipsistic version of some very dire events is loudly contradicted by Swagger, a detective, who thankfully for us retains some grip on reality, even as Muscle veers into other worlds, taking Box with it:

‘Swagger has grown so big there is no space in the room to stand, I’m pressed up against the wall. His tooth swings open like a door and I go inside the hot cavern of his mouth and his voice surrounds me.’

This is a remarkable, radical, historical novel. It’s as if everything bad about the 1940s and 50s are still circling the earth, another planet. You are practically strapped into a broken chair in a smoky, dingy room and forced to watch a writer at play, to watch his imagination, and what imaginations he gives his characters, zoom. How often do you get that chance?