From Publishers Weekly
In this quirky biography, British novelist Coe (The Winshaw Legacy
, etc.) tackles the gloomy life of his one-time literary hero, the British working-class experimental writer B.S. Johnson, who published seven novels during the 1960s and '70s before taking his own life in 1973, aged 40. Drawing on the testimony of Johnson's surviving wife, former girlfriends, friends and colleagues, Coe traces his melancholic subject's wartime childhood, undergraduate days at London University and determined efforts to launch himself as a writer. With at times overindulgent empathy, Coe charts Johnson's professional frustrations, uncovering a singular style of exasperation in Johnson's bemoaning of British literary traditionalism and stubborn defenses of his commitment to avant-garde formalism (his novels feature black pages, holes cut into pages, and unbound pages to be read in random order). Coe also traces the genesis of some of Johnson's bizarre superstitions, such as his narcissistic identification with Christopher Marlowe. Avoiding psychobabble, Coe discerns pathological tendencies in Johnson's deep attachment to his beautiful mother and in the peculiarly intense lifelong grudge he bore a college girlfriend who jilted him. Reproducing generous extracts from Johnson's novels and more autobiographical poems, Coe perhaps hopes to attract new readers to Johnson's work; as many readers will be repelled as will be intrigued. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Novelist Coe brings his own considerable creative skills to bear in this unusual biography of B. S. Johnson, British avant-garde novelist, poet, and playwright. Largely unfamiliar to American audiences, Johnson aspired to new ways of storytelling in the tradition of Joyce, and he fought convention in much the same manner as Samuel Beckett, Johnson's friend and mentor. Coe conveys the drama and agony of aesthetic pursuit, quoting heavily from Johnson's correspondence and contemporary interviews with Johnson. Coe presents evidence on both sides of the question of whether Johnson ever achieved the literary goals he set out for himself. By no means a facile read, the book rewards with intimate insight into a tragic life leading at last to Johnson's suicide. Anyone interested in the state of avant-garde literature in Britain at midcentury will relish the inside information Coe has assembled. American readers may find the heavy use of British vernacular occasionally frustrating, but this does not becloud Coe's unique gifts and achievement. Mark KnoblauchCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved