10 April 2009
Mixed feelings. I expected to hate this book. It’s a travel piece, and it seemed to be based on a ridiculous dreamed-up premise, like Tony Hawkes taking a fridge around Ireland. I didn‘t read that book, being a snob, and I wouldn‘t have been drawn to this one either. But I found the first couple of chapters quite engaging. It helps that I’m listening to the audio book version, read by Steve Hodson, who gets just the right winning north Midlands tone. He’s good at capturing Darlington’s tolerant exasperation at the ridiculousness of the world, and his entertainingly self-deprecatory riffs about things like his taste for a nice pint or his comedy hypochondria.
I don’t believe any of it. I don’t doubt that Darlington, and his missus, and his dog, all went on their narrow-boat down the US waterway he describes. But he’s doing it in order to write the book we’re reading, and he’s going to write about it in the way his target audience wants to read about it. Obviously. So what am I saying? And what are these mixed feelings I‘m talking about?
What I’m saying is, it’s fine. We find out about a little bit of America – that Americans say cute things and like to eat a lot, for instance – and that if you do a preposterous thing like take a narrow-boat to the wide waterways of the United States, preposterous things happen. Along the way, as we say in these circumstances, we even get some history and a nod to the special relationship. But the main thing is that sometimes it’s quite funny, and Darlington portrays both his missus and his dog as believable characters. Ok, Monica’s endless fund of tolerance for her eccentric husband’s little ways and the dog’s endless fund of quirky mannerisms can get a bit wearing, but, basically, it’s ok. We’re in a safe universe where, whatever happens, we know they’re going to come out alive.
It’s part of the preposterousness that by the end of Chapter 4 – a third of the way into the book, at least – they haven’t actually started the trip. They’ve had air-con installed, Darlington‘s had medical tests and an operation, they’ve practically become part of the furniture at the harbour where they’ve spent all the summer and part of the autumn…. I hope they get started soon, though, because he’s exhausted the descriptive possibilities of staying put. But I ought to say that, having read several novels recently about the crapness of growing old, it’s gratifying to have a book based on the idea that life doesn’t have to end at 70-something.
The middle third of the book, approximately. And they do get going, as soon as Chapter 5 starts. Progress is slow, obviously – I reckon about ten per cent of the book is about sailing and the rest is, well, the rest. They sail across terrifyingly wide estuaries like the Albemarle Sound where, despite the terror, dolphins make them feel glad to be alive (as dolphins always do), and along (relatively) narrower bits. And Darlington slips into those gentle self-admonishments he goes in for when he does stupid things. They carry on meeting people, who are mostly fairly like the people they have already met: big and with a lifetime of experience of some kind (the men) or kindly and pretty, whatever their age (the women). Americans are, endlessly and predictably, kind and generous..
Darlington doesn’t mind coming across as curmudgeonly if people get on his nerves, or sentimental, or simply unimpressed. He’s lived long enough, he seems to be telling us, to be completely uninterested in whatever our opinion might be of him. I was disappointed that he loves to use the phrase ‘African-American gentleman’ as though it’s somehow witty, and that he felt the need to invent a comedy name for people who stop and talk to them. He calls them gongoozlers, which makes me want to be sick. But why should he care? He even spells out the commercial raison d’etre of the Narrow Dog franchise, in a jokey list of replies to FAQs. Q: Why are you here? A: A lot of people bought our book Narrow Dog to Carcassonne… so now we are writing Narrow Dog to Indian River.
Except, of course, he does care: he strikes me as incredibly careful about what he puts in, and what he leaves out. Darlington is a bright, successful bloke with a neat line in self-deprecatory humour and he knows how to do this.
An illustration. In Chapter 7 or 8 (or both) we get two examples of Southern Hospitality. In the first a huge, and hugely generous, Southern couple ply Terry and Monica with mountains of food, twice in one day. The conversation turns to the way the Blacks commit almost all the local crime and how it would be good to see a return to public executions, as the British used to carry out in their colonies. Absolutely no comment from Terry Darlington, because he knows it’s unnecessary. Then they get an invite to a family Thanksgiving where everybody is wonderful, there are no arguments, and when people leave they do so in good spirits. To leave no doubt about it, Darlington even tells us they are in a Norman Rockwell painting. The sentiment oozes like the fat from a turkey (good this, innit?) and we all feel warm and runny inside. Good old Tel, giving us what we want.
Chapter 9 to the end
Well, that’s it then. And I can’t really think of anything more to say. As with the middle third, the last third just kind of carries on as before, chugging along like Darlington’s reliable old narrow-boat. In the end I was thinking about it more in terms of a series of publishing decisions than as a genuine diary. Not only the author’s decisions, but the publisher’s as well: we all know why he’s writing this, and it’s not to remind himself in his dotage of what he did while he still could. By about half-way through I was finding the whole thing rather lifeless. It would make an entertaining series of about five 15-minute readings on Radio 4, but it doesn’t make for an entertaining book.
People who have read it say the first Narrow Dog book was better. I’ll take their word for it.