Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Monday 19 May 2014

Remember Jack Hoxie by Jon Cleary (Collins, 1969)

England, 1969. Patrick Norval is a widower in his early forties who has a tedious job as an insurance clerk. However, he also has a teenage son called Bob who might just be the next big thing in the world of pop music. Patrick is understandably concerned at the prospects of his son being manipulated, used and abused in a world that he believes to have few scruples or morals. However, Bob's manager, a canny and seemingly insincere young Australian called Brian Boru O'Brien - a man who makes no bones about the fact that he is in it for the money - suggests that Patrick tag along with his management team and the band to ensure that Bob comes to no harm on a forthcoming tour of the USA. Brian believes that Patrick's well-publicised presence on the tour will show that Bob is a different kind of star, a young man who can demonstrably bridge the perceived 'generation gap'.

So, having resigned from the insurance company, Patrick finds himself seemingly adrift in a world in which he has little interest, knowledge or understanding. But he soon learns, and maybe those on the tour can also learn something from him...

Prolific Australian writer Jon Cleary's timely late 60s novel about the contemporary music scene was a radical and unlikely departure from an author better known for his long-running detective fiction series featuring Sydney Police Inspector Scobie Malone (and which began with The High Commissioner in 1966) and various adventure novels, some of which were adapted into films. This stand-alone novel is a well-crafted page-turner that predominantly views events through the eyes of middle-aged Patrick as his eyes are opened to a world of excess all areas, albeit one that is described in restrained fashion and even comes across as rather quaint when compared to the reported extremes of subsequent eras.

This is essentially a character study of a man who is well aware he is taking a break from his mundane life, and the book is particularly effective in showing his benign influence on those around him; particularly Brian, a Machiavellian Andrew Loog Oldham type who may not be as cynical as he first appears. Indeed, the ability to impart an often unlikely humanity and surprising likability to many of its characters is one of the book's great strengths.

However, this is no rose-tinted view as Cleary's literary radar is sharply tuned into both the generation gap issues and the ability of people to both be taken in by appearances and consequently be exploited. Also, the band's cynical arranger, a man resentful of others' place in a spotlight he believes to be rightfully his and the occasional hypocritical hippies come in for some sharp and trenchant jabs from the authorial pen.

This, then, is a far better and more profound read than the New York Times' grouchy critic at the time claimed when he claimed that "it is evident that the pop music scene is not an lement in which Mr Cleary is very comfortable. His narrative skills are squandered on a frail recipe that lacks his customary involvement".
So, although not the usual type of hardboiled fare I cover in this blog, this is nevertheless recommended as a still relevant and well-told morality tale.

Oh, and if you're wondering about the relevance of the title, some basic internet sleuthing reveals that Jack Hoxie was indeed the movie star whose career flourished from the silent film era through the 1930s, as claimed in the novel by an elderly friend of Patrick's. The fact that this once famous man is unknown or forgotten by everyone else in the novel - and, I'd wager, most people who read the novel or this review - is the potent metaphor for the novel's perceptive take on the often temporary nature of fame and celebrity.

AFTERWORD: This is the first Cleary novel I've read and, although it's clearly an atypical one, his storytelling skills, humbly and self-effacingly summed up by the writer himself in a 1998 interview when he said "I realised at 40 I did not have the intellectual depth to be the writer I would like to be, so I determined to be as good a craftsman as I might be", were clearly formidable. On this showing alone, he was obviously a talented writer with the knack of spinning a yarn and holding the reader's attention (well, this one's anyway) and his relative obscurity in the UK these days is both unfair and regrettable. I found this UK dust-jacketed hardback priced at 50p in a local charity shop and both this edition (usually ex-library copies), the UK Fontana paperback and the 1969 US Popular Library edition with a more psychedelic artwork cover featuring a Frank Zappa lookalike and rather hyperbolic cover tagline "The underground smash! A novel that turns you on to the freaked-out world of rock!" are currently readily - and fairly cheaply - available on internet used book sites.