Book Review

To Wetumpka by Ellis Sharp

Photo on 22-09-2015 at 17.45

A couple of weeks ago, I got a strange email from a small publishing house, Zoilus Press. They said that one of their authors, Ellis Sharp, would like to send me a copy of his latest book for me to blog about. How exciting, I thought! I’m being approached by the world of publishing! This hasn’t happened before. Although last year both Jonathan Trigell and Hermione Eyre tweeted me thanks for my positive reviews of their novels (The Tongues of Men or Angels and Viper Wine respectively), never before has anybody asked me to review their book. The name, Ellis Sharp, though, felt familiar. When I looked him up online, the name of one of his novels also felt recognisable: Walthamstow Central. However, I think this was familiar because it’s the northern terminus of the tube line I take the most, and that the real place I knew Ellis Sharp’s name from was here.

Ellis Sharp has posted a couple of comments on my blog, initially being led to the site (like many people) by my exhaustive reviews of the mostly posthumous oeuvre of Malcolm Lowry. In the email sent to me by Zoilus, Lowry was cited as a reason for Sharp’s invitation to read – there is a reference to him within the text. In fact, there are lots of references to lots of things – films, television, music and literature – because To Wetumpka is very much a traditional postmodern novel in its love of popular culture.*

So, quick summary of the structure of the book: To Wetumpka is in two parts, the first is about 90/95% of the text and a weird postmodern/sci-fi/fantasy/conspiracy theory/Rings of Saturn-inspired demonological adventure in East Anglia; the second part is a ten page or so coda to the novel, where the same character goes on a more realist adventure, this time on a journey through Alabama, passing one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s houses and ending up at Wetumpka crater, which is a crater. I’ll be honest, I preferred the second part by a long way, but the first part was not without its merits.

The ending of Sharp’s novel describes a lonely man reeling from the suicide of his wife/girlfriend as he takes a solo touristic trip around the Deep South. It is full of literary allusions and discussion, as well as lots of swift – but pointed – insights into Alabama: the fundamentalist religion, the guns, the empty tourist attractions. There’s also a long reimagined scene about Fitzgerald threatening to kill his lover with a gun that had been hidden by his secretary. This second part, in its oh-so-brief ten pages, I think is meant to be a more literal interpretation of the journey the protagonist, Tollinger, goes on in the first part of the book. Which is much weirder…

In part one, Tollinger (who is implied to have been recently broken up with, rather than bereaved) has moved from London to Lowestoft, a coastal town on the East Coast of England. This intrigued me, to begin with, as my mother’s family are originally from this part of the country, and so Lowestoft and Southwold, both places in the novel, were seaside towns I spent a lot of time in as a child, back when I had moribund relatives in the East. For me, the brackish North Sea holds many memories of ill-advised paddling, the sand and the stones referred to by Sharp made me think of family holidays, of the innocence of childhood and the lack of class-awareness that caused most of my problems during my teenage years (and later!). I remember walking along concrete promenades with my father, before middle class social pressure falsely taught me I should be ashamed of him (thankfully I no longer am), I remember watching other children play with toy boats in a small pool near the car park (I can visualise it strongly, but I can’t remember whether it was Lowestoft or Southwold or maybe even Great Yarmouth) and wanting to have one, but not feeling resentment when I was told I could not. I think I was a better person when I was a child, and I don’t think that’s true of everyone. Not necessarily compared to myself now, but to my younger self. I am far more my parents’ son now, as a broken bald man in his late twenties, than I ever was when I was a teenager or a party boy during my first few years in London. I’m more Zen, I’m less happy, sure, but I’m more content. I no longer hate myself for my present actions, so that’s something, but I no longer have any sense of optimism or hope. This Is It, to quote a Michael Jackson compilation album I’ve never heard. I suppose with my ambitions thwarted, I can’t really disappoint myself any more: meaning that I can debase myself freely – what is it I’m destroying? Absolutely nothing of value.

I aspire to owning a dog, you know? That’s the best I’ve got. When’s the novel coming out? It’s not, it’s not, it’s not. That’s the-

Getting bogged down in memory and remorse, appropriate really, given the subjects of Sharp’s novel. Tollinger, in his East Anglia, wanders down the coast and is pursued by some kind of magical snake-cum-eel-cum-demon. After cornering him by a groyne, the snake manages to trip Tollinger, then climbs inside his mouth. Tollinger (whose name autocorrect keeps changing to Bollinger, mirroring my alcoholic mind as I read the book) wakes up hours later, feeling a presence inside him. He goes to a local doctor who transfers him to a local hospital who transfers him to a high security military hospital on an island just off the coast, where the doctors promise to remove the snake from inside the man. Tollinger is put under general anaesthetic and wakes, later, with a gaping wound in his stomach and absolutely no one in sight. He stumbles, consuming morphine, through the hospital and its grounds, all of which indicate scenes of slaughter and panicked escape. The snake is gone from his body, but it has wreaked horror elsewhere. Tollinger makes it to a ferry port at the mainlandside end of the island, where someone arrives, gets him to a hospital where he is sewed up them transferred to another secure facility. This time he waits a while to recover, hears other patients screaming in the night, tries to escape, is thwarted, tries again, makes it to the outside world, wanders around a town a bit then gets a taxi back, that afternoon, to the hospital, only to discover it in the ruined state of somewhere that hasn’t seen human contact for years. He then leaves, and seems to disperse into particles in the night. During the final 20 pages of this part, we see flashbacks to Tollinger losing his virginity as a 10 year old and having prayers for his father’s death answered; we see snippets of life as the snake-eel-demon; we read an account of an aristocratic woman in the Middle Ages who becomes the lover of a merman captured by local fishermen and kept in the dungeons of her husband’s castle. In this, there are two weird, intense, sex scenes – that of two children and that between the merman and the baroness. Both are close together and explicit in a way that nothing else in the rest of the novel is. That the novel contains two creepy (and they are creepy) sex scenes is odd, but that they are so close together implies to me that Mr Sharp was perhaps having a period of chastity lasting a little too long when he came to write that part of the novel. However, the merman story is one of the stronger parts of the text – it quite perfectly slides into the gap between the commonplace and the absurd that Sharp plays with throughout To Wetumpka. Tollinger has strange experiences, but he then makes allusions to Lost, zombies and Ian Fleming; there is a crude scene of sex between two children (childish language used to describe adult pursuits), but then there is a mature couple of scenes detailing the break-up of a marriage. There is a strange, and somewhat silly, adventure with an alien/demon in hidden military hospitals, but then there is a moving travel journal through rural America. To Wetumpka is witty in places, inventive in some, and turns out to be surprisingly moving in its final section.

I haven’t read anything else by Sharp, but I am tempted to do so – where this novel is strong, it is surprising. There are all the traditional postmodernist tropes within here – meta-fiction, references to the language of the text, puns, pop-culture references, multiple perspectives, merging of genre fiction into something more literary… I feel that parts of the novel felt like box-ticking – the scenes from the snake’s perspective, for example, added little – but I felt that the overwhelming message of the novel – that of the trauma of bereavement and the falsity of memory, the wish for a true transcendental adventure in lieu of reality – these are strong and firm and well evoked. I never really bought into the snake, but the walks through abandoned buildings I liked, the pop culture-ising I enjoyed, and the descriptions of coastal emptiness has inspired me to go and look at these old seaside towns if I can wake up early enough tomorrow to do so****… And the final section persuaded me to go out and buy a cheap copy of The Great Gatsby to reread. It also made me think of Lost a lot, which was a TV show I really enjoyed, back in my youth.

To Wetumpka is an interesting novel, and I’m glad to have been sent a copy. It amused me, it intrigued me, and the final section really impressed me. Not a bad read.

And do y’all like my new glasses?


* Just realised I forgot to say what was strange about the email I received: my email address is not listed on this blog, nor on my occasionally-referenced Twitter account (@Scott_Hadley – though it’s mainly just links to here). What this means is that Zoilus Press, or Sharp himself, searched the internet for my contact details, which is really the most flattering aspect of the whole thing. I have a suspicion that it’s included on the page on the Goldsmiths website that holds extracts from my unpublished (waiting for the right offer**, guys!) historical novel, though I could be wrong. I would check, but I know I would find the whole experience too depressing, viewing my writing from a time when I thought it might lead somewhere other than this bloghole that I’ve got myself stuck into. In other news, though, today I am not drunk, hungover or working for money, and the only remotely creative thing I’ve managed to do today is write this blog. I’ve also sorted out the resident’s parking permit for my girlfriend’s BMW, gone and collected my new Paul Smith glasses from an Upper Street opticians, fed the cat, watched two and a half episodes of Better Call Saul*** on Netflix on a fucking tablet computer, cooked myself a salad using a griddle pan, done some laundry, masturbated, shat and responded to a couple of work emails. #boredeoisie

** An offer.

*** Which I firmly believe is a better show than Breaking Bad. Though it is in itself a dark tragedy where the inevitable decline of the protagonist is assured, the decline is less to do with a distinct loss of self – Saul Goodman was never evil, just corrupt. There is a warmth to Better Call Saul that is lacking from the earlier (and more famous) programme, and there is a bravery to its direction that is quite refreshing. The story is slower, and though I’ve watched it in a relatively short space of time, it’s because watching it has been very pleasant, rather than (as with Breaking Bad) an inherent need rooted in an overwhelming urge to know what happens. It’s braver storytelling. The episode about Mike in Philadelphia was incredibly moving, the five minute law courts montage in the second episode was phenomenal, Jimmy’s monologue about a Chicago sunroof to a room full of pensioners in the final episode: this is great and brave television. I highly recommend it. Anyway, where was I?

**** I have tickets to see the Rocky Horror Show in the evening, so need to be back in London with time enough to dress…

2 comments on “To Wetumpka by Ellis Sharp

  1. Pingback: Midland: A Novel Out of Time by Honor Gavin | The Triumph of the Now

  2. Pingback: How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee | The Triumph of the Now

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