To damn with faint praise may be the unkindest review of all; the reader was neither delighted nor disgusted, enthralled or appalled. One reader’s hate may be another’s love after all. But there’s neither here for me so I must come clean at the outset and say that Andrew Blackman’s On the Holloway Road is Ok – not great, not terrible, just Ok.
The central premise in many ways is a fine one; a road trip in modern day
I slowed down as I approached Towcester, an important staging point on the old road. It was a disappointment of course. Even to imagine Roam legions at camp was impossible in this anonymous agglomeration of clothing chains, supermarkets and dark pubs. Only a few bored teenagers on bikes stared blankly at my Figaro as it purred through the town and out the other side in no more than a couple of minutes.
It’s passages like the above that stand out for me in this book. Andrew as a (rather gloomy) chronicler of city and landscape, writes with confidence and clarity.
My problem is with characters, both major and minor. Jack, the struggling author and narrator quickly becomes irritating. At first his struggle to defeat his ennui and live a little seems promising and I wanted him to get his backside kicked a little on the road to spur him on. In his companion Neil, the juvenile offender, amateur philosopher and anarchist there should have been a butt kicker par excellence. The trouble is, Neil never feels fully drawn, remaining more two dimensional free spirit than three dimensional man, and so Jack remains as he starts out, more observer than participant in life. As such he is jaded and prone to self pity which becomes wearing after too short a while.
The minor characters met along the way share Neil’s central flaw. I can see what Andrew wants to create with each one but they don’t ring true for me. It comes down to the approach Andrew has taken, to use Jack as narrator. Whilst we know what is going on in his head, we can only infer what drives everyone else through their dialogues with Jack and dialogue is Andrew’s weak suit. That doesn’t mean it never works; when it’s punchy and to the point the characters are alive:
“Fuse was blown,” she stuttered, shivering. “Couldn’t face hunting down the torch and fixing it. You don’t mind, do you?”
Unfortunately there are too many moments when what Andrew’s characters say feels ‘polished’, as if they are reading prose meant to define them for us rather than simply talking, allowing us to work them out. Hence, like Neil, they come across as ideas not people one might actually meet. But all is not lost. Andrew is a new writer and learning his craft. He clearly has stories to tell and desire and perseverance to put them on paper. If he can develop an ear for dialogue to match the eye he has for place then good things will surely come.
One final point. Through jack, Andrew articulates strong views on what constitutes the ‘literary’ novel, what the publishing industry want and what that means for writers. Combine this with the references to On The Road that run throughout and Andrew invites the reader to ‘compare and contrast’ both his work and himself to Kerouac. My initial reaction to this was astonishment at such hubris. On reflection I believe he is instead asking us to consider what is important in writing, perhaps suggesting that literature has somewhat lost its way and a turn back to the autobiographical, life as it is lived voice is needed. A worthy sentiment.