After reading Sebastian Beaumont's addictive novel Thirteen for a while, I just couldn't help noticing how much the cover reminded me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull - that book of photographs of seagulls that doubled as a book of 1970s advice on how to 'be.' Thirteen too could be read as a manual on how to live in the moment, but its tongue is more firmly planted in its cheek than Jonathan's is. Let us say that it is about a character who needs and uncovers such advice.
As I mentioned in my first post on this book, Thirteen concerns a failed businessman who turns taxi driver on the night shift on the advice of an old friend. He ends up picking up Valerie, who is very ill, from her home at number Thirteen Wish Road, but as it turns out, this address does not actually exist. At least it doesn't exist unless he's in the zone, or as the nurse says:
Thirteen is not a number, it is a state of mind.
Who the hell is The Nurse, you ask? Read the book. Many contemporary books are described as 'journeys' even when they're not. This one actually is - befitting a book about a taxi driver. Not just a journey around the streets of the city, a journey from depression to happiness or illness to wellness. Occasionally I rolled my eyes about passages such as this one:
It is now four-forty in the morning, and I am tired, but not unhappy, and I have a sense like I have never had before that I am ALIVE, and I would love, I would LOVE to meet The Nurse right now, because I think I would be in a position, for the first time in my life, to be able to listen to what she has to say.
'Sometimes,' she says, 'I think there are two ways living life. Firstly, you can put your nose to the grindstone and don't ever look up. If you always look at the ground, you'll never be happy, but at least you'll never know that you're unhappy.' She pauses to look out of the window at the bright emptiness of Argos and Kentucky Fried Chicken. 'And secondly?' I ask. 'Yes, secondly,' she says, a little wistfully, 'you can choose to look up and out from yourself. But then, you'll always have to face the fact that you live in a world of suffering.' I look at her in the mirror and she seems fascinated, for some reason, by her fingernails. 'And the advantage of looking up and out?' 'No matter how painful it is,' she tells me, 'you'll always know that you are alive.'
It struck me upon reading this book, how many contemporary novels are about a recovery of one kind of another. Particularly in the colloquial sense of recovering one's health or balance, as opposed to, say, a lost locket. Sarah Salway's book Tell Me Everything (which I am absolutely crazy about) could be looked at as a saga of recovery. Thirteen is a more ironic tale, but an equally compelling read. I just couldn't stop. It is a mystery - and oddly you don't even know what the mystery is for a time. But as silly as the life lessons aspect sometimes could be, it was also full of truths and left me smiling, not at it so much as because of it. As Stephen, the central character, recovered himself, I felt better too. Beaumont creates a host of memorable characters - both in the regular Thirteen gang and also among the passengers Stephen ferries from place to place. You can feel the love come right off the page - my favorite may have been the young man trying to run away from home. He leaves the meter running so long as he finishes packing his luggage, that he only has enough money left to go to the end of his block. I also enjoyed the writer's skill, not just in the plotting of a tale that kept me guessing but also in more subtle creations of character. I particularly admired the transformation of the voice from a bitter but chatty narrator of a thirty-something guy in a contemporary TV show:
Okay, I'd better get the 'How I ended up in this predicament' bit over with. I thought I might say something dramatic and tragic like...
I parked directly outside. The air was fresh and slightly salty, and I could see, in the street lighting from across the road, the new foliage on the trees that flanked the park...
One could say it is a transformation from someone whose face is to the grindstone, to someone who looks up and out of himself.... hmmm. This novel is compulsively readable, amusing, and smart about human nature. As enjoyable for its mystery as it is for its little truths about living life. I really enjoyed it.
Interestingly, both Thirteen and Tell Me Everything were recommendations of Scott Pack. Two for two, Scott! Actually, correction, that's three for three - I forgot about Electricity.
The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vaquez up next (a recommendation of Dovegreyreader). I'm loving it so far. And I'm continuing to plough through Sensation & Perception by E. Bruce Goldstein. Shop reading, but still interesting stuff.