American Smoke is Iain Sinclair’s part travel journal, part memoir and part fantasy-flight through the topography of the Beat movement – that collection of poets and writers who came to prominence in post-war America, as they experimented with the new and the exotic, whilst dispensing with the dogma of the previous generation. Before proceeding, though, I must qualify all that follows in these terms:
1. I am not American.
2. Prior to this experience, I had never before heard of Charles Olson.
3. Apart from being aware of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, I have no point of reference to the ‘Beat Generation’.
Some of this confession may well nail my colours to the mast: as a heathen and a dunce, but so be it – let’s start from there. Because as a non-initiate, I nevertheless picked up American Smoke without expectation or prejudice. Sure, it may not have packed the same punch as for someone already steeped in that particular literary tradition, but I was still expecting some return on my investment here. In that context then, the first section – Two Men Smoking – simply turned its back on the non-devotee.
This opening passage, about Charles Olson, did not give even cursory attention to a fundamental question – who the hell was this person?? Taking small licence, I surmise the author’s perspective as: ‘…we’re on pilgrimage here, Baby. I’m not wasting my time on a summary for plebs.’
Stylistically, the writing is deliberately disjointed. The only conclusion to draw is that this is a work aimed squarely at the in-crowd, the cool-kids already in love with the key and satellite players, as well as their broader milieu. But from the POV of the Great Unwashed, it just does not work. Indeed, more than simply not working, it comes across as pretentious – as the author getting off on his own trickery and showing-off to his mates. In that vein, consider the following extract:
“…‘I was interested in the connection with Lovecraft. What was all that about?’Lovecraft? Did I really throw him into the mix? The spiked youth in the Bolano T-shirt was sucking water from a plastic bottle like a petrol thief. He was twitchy to get outside for a smoke. His choice of chest adornment? Nazi Literature in the Americas. A print made from the New Directions cover. The image, as the goth’s protuberant belly rose and fell, was distinctly Lovecraftian: a grey man, his apparently naked back lurid with obscenely white vegetative matter, staggering head first towards a door that might be a shrouded mirror, or the portal to some unspeakable soul-shredding dimension of eldritch horror.”
To try my hand at Sinclairian obfuscation, if you do not smoke Gitanes and have not spent a year slumming it in Paris, reading American Smoke will induce a catatonic episode. Put more simply, this book is a brick wall. To make no effort at all to consider a new audience, to give orientation to the key players, to explain why they mattered – and most importantly, why they might still matter today – smacks of arrogance beyond measure. It is too dense, opaque – and boring – to hold any interest whatsoever.
Any Cop?: It is by some distance, the worst book I have ever read.