27 May 2011

The Emperor of Ice-Cream (Brian Moore)

Brian Moore's The Emperor of Ice-Cream was indirectly recommended to me by Graham Greene. (I'm slowly catching up on references from the letters collection I read a couple of years back.) It appears to be out of print, which is crazy (maybe NYRB Classics will pick up the slack? They reissued his The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne last year). Seriously, go to the library. It's so good.

At heart, it's the WWII-era coming-of-age tale of aimless Gavin Burke, who's chosen to join the Belfast ARP rather than go to college as his Catholic family expects. In fact, they're both contemptuous and angry about his decision: his father hopes fervently that Hitler will triumph over the British, and his son's wearing the oppressors' uniform fills him with disappointment and rage. Gavin, though, is seventeen, secretly agnostic, drinking too much, trying in vain to part the knees of his Irish-virgin girlfriend Sally--and he has no idea what he wants to do with his life. The ARP is a means of putting off adulthood, a means of escape.

But then as now, adulthood is inescapable, try as one might. And even for a grown-up
the catechism rules prevailed. In both worlds, lack of purpose, lack of faith, was the one deadlly sin. In both worlds, the authorities, detecting that sin, arranged one's punishment. All of life's races are fixed and false. You stand at the starting line, knowing you can run as well as the others, but the authorities, those inimical and unknown arbiters, have decreed that you will not get off your marks. They know, those authorities, that your place is with the misfits, that your future will be void.
Yes, this flies straight to my own heart, even as I approach twice Gavin's age. I find that even the outwardly successful feel this, though, that the deck is stacked against us all.

The novel's prose is knifelike and resonant, the characters--from Gavin's snide socialist friend Freddy Hargreaves to their martinet boss, Craig--deep and lucid. The final chapters, dealing with the April 1941 German bombing of Belfast and its aftermath (fully half the homes in the city were damaged), are both horrifying and strangely hopeful: nothing focuses one like tragedy. And for me, it illuminated an aspect of this so-written war that I'd never thought about.

Really: you are all in charge of finding this book, reading it, and telling everyone you know about it. Would be amazing to get it back in print.

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