James Nowlan - Security (Underground Literary Alliance)

George Bass 08/03/2007

Rating: 4/5

With its jacket the colour of own-brand plonk and a price tag that seems just the wrong side of hefty, you might be put off from trying James Nowlan's Security. The fact that no major publisher would touch it and that it's been put out by the Underground Literary Alliance hints at pulpy contention; dedicated to a stand against "the inbred work of MFA-degree pyramid scheme hustlers who have ghettoized lit for decades and turned it into an irrelevant niche", the ULA prides itself in distributing books that rattle cages. On the face of such idealism the import fee might feel a notch more necessary, but regardless of the politics the finished product itself is a genuine rarity. Drawing heavily from his own experiences as a homeless alky who lived to tell the tale, Nowlan's book feels like antimatter when compared to the bloodletting of mass-print novels like American Psycho and Fight Club.

Falling into the novella bracket at only a hundred pages, Security chronicles the life and times of one Tom McGern, a meek teen drifter who escapes his degenerate family and the sadistic snake-obsessed cults of his Bible Belt hometown to head for LA. After some time spent roughing it in the shanty towns under the Hollywood flyover, he lures a bohemian student back to the billet he's been dossing in and is encouraged to enroll at her campus. The systematic exile he receives by her fellow students - each of them desperate for working-class credibility, each of them recoiling at the sight of Tom's streetwise initiative and the girl it helped him net - is as farcical as it is wholly convincing, and offers up a snapshot of life on a planet controlled by sociopaths. Returning from a university-funded road trip with his girlfriend (née wife), he discovers that his classmates have commandeered his former squat and turned it into a self-help centre to liberate the proles from the trappings of meat. Tom and his missus quickly do a bunk for gay Paree, where he temps out a living as a security officer in the parts of the city where no one else will work. The misadventures he endures during his assignments would make even Lindsay Anderson's eyes spin, and range from relentless bureaucratic mayhem to cannibalistic terror at the hands of syringe-wielding pimps.

Plotwise, it's no Cloud Atlas, but Nowlan infuses his prose with a gutwrenching, blackly comic humility that transposes like Hubert Selby Jr rewriting The Ginger Man. It's not the only thing he's got in common with the Outlaw Poet, either: the publishers have decided to omit any corrections to typos, giving the text either a coarse purity or lexical injustice, depending on your outlook. In terms of character, Tom may not have the eye of the tiger but he's nonetheless a survivor, somehow always resolving to soldier on every time the world turns round and bashes him. On the course of his adventures he runs into a supporting cast of oddballs nuttier than a vegetarian's constipation, the author using some menacing nuances to illustrate the sly torment of the weak by the strong, and the merciless flogging of the chaff by the weak. 'Don't worry, we're all Amercians,' quips a psychotic ex-pat barman in one sequence, 'some of us just don't know it yet.'

Security remains consistently vivid throughout, and burns like a mouthful of Tennant's Super against the shandy of many of today's 'my miserable life' fictionalisations. The last leg may fruit machine its way through more endings than Hot Fuzz, finally finishing on a wallop rather than a nudge, but that doesn't detract from the acerbic power of the book. They say true grit is only found on the ground, and Nowlan's highly engaging debut feels like it's been chiselled out of a jackboot waffle using a Gauloise dog-end. If you're pining for some plucky underdog triumph then you should go and read Robin Of Sherwood, but if you can stomach seeing the not-so-merry Mr Littlejohn's mantra in full swing then brace yourself for Security. You couldn't make it up.


(Security is available from www.outyourbackdoor.com and Amazon.com)