by Alexander Trocchi
153 pages, Oneworld Classics
Review by Pat Black
There are a couple of versions of Young Adam - one sexy, and one not quite so sexy. I’m not sure which one I picked up, but it seemed plenty sexy to me. I wonder if there’s an even sexier one out there? Maybe we can keep adding layers of sexiness until we reach an edition which is all sex, like a cake made entirely out of icing.
Alexander Trocchi is the high priest of the Scottish beat. Irvine Welsh, the east coast’s bard of the unspeakable, was certainly influenced by him. A friend and contemporary of William Burroughs, Trocchi was a notorious junkie for much of his life, going so far as to pimp out his wife in order to feed his habit. Sick Boy would be proud.
Although the Glaswegian has a formidable record in editing and publishing in Paris, New York and London in the 1950s and 60s, Trocchi had bills to pay and smack to shoot. He wrote pornography in order to do so, and this informs much of Young Adam.
That Trocchi was a skilled writer is obvious from the opening lines, and barely seems worth examining here. I read a telling comment about Trocchi recently: that he wrote erotica “a little too well”.
Young Adam tells the story of Joe, an educated drifter working on a barge as it putters between Glasgow and Edinburgh on the Forth and Clyde Canal in the 1950s. This is when the canal was a working waterway, and the barge feeds great sooty heaps of anthracite to the factories which thronged the banks during those two cities’ industrial heyday – now long gone. This novel might as well be set in the middle ages for younger readers, but I was fascinated by its scenes of a primitive Glasgow just odd enough to be interesting, just familiar enough to be understood.
The barge is owned by Leslie, a scarred old lion of a man who’s more interested in drinking in sawdust-carpeted dives than in pleasing his much younger wife, Ella. Joe sleeps in a bunk next to Leslie and Ella’s room on the boat. The wall which divides them is paper-thin. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s going to happen next.
That’s the way of the world – but Joe’s not a very nice person. Told from his perspective, the story starts with Joe and Leslie discovering the body of a woman in the water, naked except for a flimsy petticoat. The police are called, and the body is taken away; it looks like murder, but Joe isn’t so sure about that. That’s because Joe knows exactly what happened to the woman in the water.
More often than not, Joe’s thoughts take a priapic turn, going into great detail about what he’d like to do with Ella. Joe’s already had a good look at the package, spying on Ella while she masturbates, as her husband snores alongside her. Perched outside the window with his trousers at his ankles, Joe flails himself in tandem with his landlady, and, in football parlance, times his run into the box well.
Young Adam is straight-up erotica, lurching between fantasy scenarios (even Leslie gets a turn in the spotlight, recounting an experience with two prostitutes in his youth) before finally settling on real sex, as Joe and Ella make their move. For all that the build-up involves so much sweaty speculation, the description of their first sexual encounter is brief, almost curt, but memorable; a testament to Trocchi’s flair. “Our bodies fused, like pieces of lead.”
The author may be a poet, but his chief subject is hardly a sensitive lover. Joe tends towards sadism, thrashing his women with belts, fashioning dog collars for them, and, in one unforgettable passage, covering them with a drab rainbow of kitchen condiments. Trocchi details the women’s pleasure as well as their pain, but there’s a lot of pure meanness in the mix. More than once, Joe’s mouse heads for the wrong house, taking the women by surprise. Perhaps, in Trocchi’s famous statement that the basis of all his writing was “sodomy”, there was more to it than a glib, sophomoric need to shock and provoke.
I was struck by how the game has changed completely for this type of writing. Arguably, in the era in which this book was written, erotica was penned by and for men. Dirty books for dirty old men in dirty old macs. Nowadays, it’s all about the girls – almost exclusively, I would venture. I once tried my luck at writing a long story for Harlequin, but I was bashful as a knock-kneed teenager struggling with a condom wrapper when it came to describing women’s feelings, passions and even their simple observations about men. It felt like an awkward, discomfiting dream, or perhaps that I had gotten dressed in the dark, and put on the wrong clothes. What can I tell you? I’m a bit of a square. Trocchi is most decidedly not.
Joe’s sexual voyage takes him from the mystery lady in the water, to Ella, and then to Ella’s step-sister. From there he beds the wife of a man whose flat he lodges in (the husband fully consents to his wife being placed at Joe’s convenience: “Give it to her rough, she can take it”). And finally, there’s a 20-year-old student, whom he approaches on the Kelvin Way in Glasgow, explaining that he wishes to f*ck her.
In the background, the newspapers are dominated by coverage of a sensational murder trial. A man named, appropriately, Goon, has been charged with the murder of the woman Joe and Leslie pulled out of the canal. It’s here that Trocchi finally forces his narrator to engage with something which could be mistaken for a conscience.
Joe goes so far as to pen an anonymous postcard to the trial judge, explaining that the woman’s death was an accident, in the hope of getting Goon off the hook, but to no avail. Bouncing along inside his own wee existential bubble, Joe wonders what guilt and justice really are, when ranged against those tasked with acting in its service. This is the kind of argument a petulant philosophy student might raise when trying to deflect awkward questions about who ate the last of the cheese, but these and other ruminations help raise Young Adam above the level of unusually lyrical smut.
It also raises a problem I have with the beat writers in general. I understand the social strictures they were fighting against, and their contempt for society’s conventions, whether crystallised in the form of laws or not. And of course, I can’t fault their skills with a pen. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them.
Joe meanders from one experience to the next, shakes a little blunt poetry out of them, and moves on. Whoever and whatever he’s trampled over in the service of his desires are an utter irrelevance. The human side of things is neglected; these characters are almost bemused that such chaos could be wrought out of their actions.
This kind of aloof, but destructive stance might be what stopped me from buying into On The Road when I was 18 or 19, dead centre in the target age, despite the breathless reviews from my peers. Young Adam’s main character is cut from the same existential cloth as Sal Paradise – ie, he’s an absolute pr*ck. As indeed lots of young men are. Perhaps there’s a line to be drawn between Joe’s nihilism and that of spoiled US high school jocks, drugging girls, raping them and filming it. That horrid, fundamental disconnect. Or maybe it’s just the way of the world.
Young Adam’s title is a misnomer. Joe might be at play in the Garden, but he’s not Adam. He’s the serpent, and the knowledge he offers is poison.