I’m not sure it’s an altogether healthy thing to identify with the protagonist of a novel (particularly the protagonist of an ongoing series of novels, particularly the protagonist of an ongoing series of novels who is socially inadequate, overweight, the epitomy of hapless, unhappy much of the time, lonely much of the time, frustrated much of the time, occasionally clueless, occasionally bewildered, given to bemoaning his fate, given to excuse-making, given to clumsiness and given to getting himself caught up in business he has no part being caught up in). And yet, for all that, Israel Armstrong, the protagonist of Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series of books, is rapidly becoming the character in literature I most identify with. (Not, I should say, because I am socially inadequate, overweight, the epitomy of hapless, unhappy much of the time, lonely much of the time, frustrated much of the time, occasionally clueless, occasionally bewildered, given to bemoaning my fate, given to excuse-making, given to clumsiness and given to getting myself caught up in business I have no part being caught up in – and rather because Israel perhaps represents what I might have been like if I’d not found the love of a good woman or had the intelligence (or foresight or weakness or lack of ambition or lack of guts) to ignore the voice in my head imploring me to throw everything up in favour of a life of the mind). Israel is – to paraphrase Spinal Tap – me turned up to 11.
The Bad Book Affair, the fourth instalment in the series, finds our Israel at something of a low ebb, in the main because Gloria, his girlfriend – a long distance absence throughout the first three books and repository for all of Israel’s better instincts – has finally given him the old heave-ho. And so, reclining on his messy bed, in the old chicken coop, on the Devine’s farm just outside of Tumdrum, in the north of the north of the north of Northern Ireland, losing weight, growing a beard and struggling with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the last thing on Israel’s mind is the bloody mobile library – leastways until Ted (his grumpy co-worker, a local of Tumdrum who has a tendency to give Israel’s ups and downs short shrift) takes him by the scruff of the neck and drags him back to work. Before you can say, ‘Sure, you can’t be serious,’ Israel is entangled in another mystery: the disappearance of a teenage Goth girl last seen borrowing Philip Roth’s American Pastoral from ‘the unshelved’ (those books council policy dictates should be kept under the counter and only shown if asked for as a result of their being likely to waywardly sway young and impressionable minds).
All of the by now familiar faces make a show, ranging from Israel’s unsympathetic boss, Linda Wei, to George Devine, the lass who runs the farm on which Israel lives and who maybe just maybe might one day take Israel under her bosom and the comedy is firmly set in the gentle groove carved out by the likes of Father Ted (rumours of a TV show driven by interest from David Jason are to be cherished, whispered and passed about at this point under the heading of WHAT A GOOD THING THAT WOULD BE). What (albeit gently) separates The Bad Book Affair from previous outings (much to the book’s credit) is the sense of ennui Sansom generates as a result of Israel’s quietly doomed friendship with an elderly bohemian called Pearce Pyper. This, taken together with several instances where Sansom really gets to take a deep breath and let loose with some genuinely affecting descriptive passages (walking back from Pearce Pyper’s, Israel is struck by ‘the cow parsley, and the whin bushes, and with the sound of his feet in the silence [such that] it felt for a moment that he was outside himself, and outside time, and that the whole of nature was somehow audible and available to him and he was overcome by a feeling of intense love, and of loss – as though he was completely connected to the world and, simlutaneously, completely and irrevocably cut off’), the sense of both how much and how little Israel knows and the slowly-slowly catchee-monkey relationship blooming between Israel and George, demonstrates just what long legs this series potentially has.
As it is, The Bad Book Affair is my favourite Mobile Library outing so far. And I, for one, eagerly anticipate the next (and the next and the next and the next) outing for Israel and Ted and the mobile library…
Any Cop?: If Alan Bennett collaborated with Graham Linehan on a detective series set in the north of the north of the north of Northern Ireland… well, I’d hazard a guess that it wouldn’t be a patch on Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series!