They say that twenty is the best age to be – one’s growing pains and studying largely left behind, and the future, all up for the taking, stretched out in front. Billionaires’ Banquet by Ron Butlin takes us through the lives of five characters, starting when they’re twentysomethings, and finishing when the oldest of the quintet hits fifty.
All students in 1980s Edinburgh, the story begins with them on the cusp of leaving academia behind. And they’re bright – the oldest a PhD in Philosophy, another a Mathematics undergrad; the world should’ve been kneeling before them but Thatcher’s austerity is biting hard, and the streets of Edinburgh are bereft of hope or opportunity. Whilst insulated within the bubble of university, they manage to eke out a joyful, shoestring-budgeted life, but all that is about to change and unless they find their feet quickly, destitution awaits.
Five main characters is at the top-end of what a reader can normally juggle, however Butlin has coloured them in individually. Hume, the oldest, is a wannabe philosopher-king and serial shagger who’d qualify as a bon viveur, if he were not so broke. ‘The Cat’ is a maths whizz (and also serial shagger, often with Hume), who remains haunted by the death of her sister, in their childhood. ‘St. Francis’ is a onetime priest in-training who was abused, left the Church, and is now crippled for want of companionship; of intimacy. Indeed exploitation plays a strong undercurrent, (another female character is forced to lay down on the lecturer-student equivalent of the casting-couch), but despite their damaged and penniless lives, Butlin makes the indefatigability of their youth shine through. The early passages, whilst reflective and sober at crucial points, are filled with booze, drugs, good humour and ribaldry, and not a little sex. All of which for the reader, makes the story upbeat – and hugely fun to read – despite its dark heart. And whilst the prose is solid throughout, occasionally it really soars:
“The comforting wreaths of Lebanese black were sucked in deep and held-held-held until the Cat had felt them uncoil inside her, spreading their soothing ease, relaxing the last of that block of misery, and dissolving it. A couple more hits and the previous night’s misery would have become so much expelled air drifting away to nowhere on a midsummer’s afternoon. Good dope can be kind and merciful.”
The story turns when Hume’s dreams of academic celebrity die, and he is forced to find some Plan B – both for basic survival, as well as to impress a new girlfriend. He chances upon the idea of butlering, of providing executive services to the filthy rich, and so forms a company catering for that strata of Edinburgh society – one which goes from strength to strength. Butlin then fast forwards twenty years to pick up the story, and the lives of the characters, in July 2005 – a period that brought the G8 Summit and street riots to Edinburgh, and the 7/7 terrorist attacks to London.
Through his muse of Hume – who now aged fifty, is just another member of the filthy rich – Butlin tries to make strong points about nation-states, wars and late capitalism. However where the story really scores is in showing how dawns fresh promise gets broken – how individuals, at onetime poor and ‘simple’, get corrupted through money. The crescendo is a little too neat but is nonetheless thrilling, as Butlin spins up a vortex, going faster and faster as the lives of estranged characters coalesce, leaving the reader guessing until the very end.
Any Cop?: Billionaires’ Banquet is, first and foremost, a hugely entertaining novel. It’s fast-paced, very funny, and with characters whose joie-de-vivre is simply irresistible. A cracking good read.