Fowler’s End by Gerald Kersh (2013 [reprint], Valancourt Books)
Called one of the great comic novels of the 20th century, Fowler’s End is a hilarious book which proved to be a challenge to read. One of the difficulties in reading the novel is that it’s written in dialect, never an easy task. The book even has a glossary of Cockney rhyming slang at the beginning. For instance, “bucket-and-pail” is a way to say “jail”. It also comes with a lengthy introduction by Michael Moorcock.
Fowler’s End is a first person account of Daniel Laverock’s brief tenure as the manager of a decrepit movie theater in London. It’s the year 1929 and sound is just coming in. But the owner, Sam Yudenow, is convinced sound film is a passing fad. There’s also a business associate of Yudenow, Copper Baldwin, who’s trying to keep the whole operation afloat. Finally, Laverock and Baldwin, hit upon a scheme to enrich themselves and pull one over on Yudenow at the same time.
There is a lot more to the novel than the above description. The first 25 pages are written in one long monologue by Yudenow about running the theater. Complicating the tirade is the way he talks: a strange mixture of Yiddish and cockney:
“This way it’s simple. Like this, all you got to do is show ’em in. Let ’em dress, let ’em make up to their ’eart’s content—there’s a looking glass in every room, and in the yard a lovely laventry. Comes five minutes before the hour nip out o’ the ’all an’ get ’em out. Then all they got to do is nip dahnstairs, nip into the front entrance, nip through my vestibule, nip up the back o’ the ’all an’ wait. This you should synchronize to the tick miv the end o’ the second feature, which naturally comes on first…”
The book focuses on the utter wretchedness of the inhabitants of Fowler’s End. There are plenty of stories about the filth people take for granted on a daily basis. One of the characters gets the idea to treat spoiled meat with copper sulfate and sell it as “greenburgers”. The theater musicians are one step removed from homeless. Even the piano player is a hopeless drunk. The only employers in the slum produce glue,pipes and sulfuric acid. But Kersh has a way with words which make it all hilarious.
For instance, this discussion of a Victorian dirty profession known as a “pure finder”:
“Pure, son, is dog’s dung. It’s best ’and-picked, and in the better quarters o’ the town, or round the posh kennels.”
“What do they use it for? Growing flowers?” I asked.
“Gawd, no! Pure is death to flowers. But it’s the only thing you can possibly treat Russia leather with. Dog’s dung and no other dung’s got some chemical principle in it that makes Russia leather supple and fragrant. The best sort was worth a few pence a pound, and it ’ad to be picked by ’and so you knew what you was getting. None o’ your biscuit-fed pure would do, nor your bone-eating pure. The real meat-fed stuff with body in it. . . .”.
Gerald Kersh was a popular writer who lived from 1911- 68. Years ago, I found a paperback edition of his short fiction, Nightshades and Daminations, which impressed me to no end. His novel Night and the City was twice made into a movie. Once again, bonus points to Valancourt for a bringing a hard-to-find novel back into print.