A line from Nick Sweeney’s new novel Laikonik Express reads:
Kennedy recalled the Baltic beach scene from Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, shit-stirrer Oskar and his mom watching a longshoreman fish off a shore a lot like the one he looked on now.
“Shit-stirrer Oskar,” but when you are so small maybe that’s all you can amount to—the child Marcel in À la recherche du temps perdu is surely the biggest shitstirrer of them all. Anyway, this appellation, “Shit-stirrer Oskar,” a nod to Joyce, (not out of context, Joyce-flavor permeates Laikonik Express) caught my eye, twofold, yes, Oskar was a shitstirrer, that’s the truth, you can’t refute that, there’s one, here’s two: Nick Sweeney is the kind of writer I long for. With the slightest nod, he is able to conjure up magic. “Shit-stirrer Oskar” had me laughing aloud. I am silly I know. All writing is magic. I might have to go back to my books, but I am sure that the evil genius, Egyptian if I remember rightly, that invented writing also invented games, dice, checkers, and the magic trick. I enjoy these little nods. It sets the tone of the book. They are the softwood timber that makes up the rail track that allows the train to run smoothly.
Nick Sweeney tells it like it is, and he hits the nail on the head, two clichés, I know, but at the end of the night, three clichés, clichés are clichés because they are the truth. I know, the reader, me, that Nick Sweeney is as mendacious as they come, but as with Raymond Roussel, I am fooled into believing that the mendacity on the page, made manifest in ink, is the truth. Are Mermaids edible, was Thomas Pynchon really J D Salinger, did six-year-old Don witness the assassination of JFK, does he have proof that Lee Harvey Oswaldski really did it, how did Jack Kerouac die? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Laikonik Express is a quest book. Nolan Kennedy, a young American teaching English in Istanbul and a Sancho Panza to an alcoholic Don Quixotic, a writer by the name of Don Darius, conjures up a quest to save his friend from the bottle, vodka, after reading “the mighty unpublished novel” left abandoned by his friend. If only somebody would have taken Flann O’Brien on such a journey, if only somebody would have published The Third Policeman while the great man was. For Kennedy, Darius is a paragon of the American writer, a Jack London of sorts. Paragon may be the wrong word, although many American writers, not only American writers, have worshipped at the feet of Jack London, the mythmaker. Hemingway, Mailer, Bukowski genuflected before London, so why not Don Darius. Kennedy believes his friend is, maybe, one of the greats. He believes it and that is all we need, and so, we have the quest, the end, the reward. The object of the quest is not the lost word, or the grail, but a woman. At other end of the Baudelairean experience, for Pound the ephemeral moment produced, In a Station of the Metro, there has to be a woman. The woman is a mystery woman, and will always be a mystery. As with Baudelaire and Pound, Sweeney’s woman is nothing more than an ignis fatuus.
Did you know that Jack London was one of the first Americans to surf? When he first encountered surfing, he believed the surfers were using dead bodies. When he found out they were using only boards made of coconut trees, he lost interest and decided to take up bartending.
Laikonik Express is your quintessential picaresque novel. Sweeney, bravely, doesn’t shy away from the ingredients; they are all there, you know them all, you read books, I know you do, if you didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this review, so you know what goes into the picaresque novel. It is a Rabelaisian adventure, a Satyricon with Neal and Sal. We get two Villons for the price of one, on the road, getting into trouble, although they are spared the strappado. It is a boozy, music-filled, peripatetic burping, retching, puking rodeo. Sweeney with cutthroat alacrity and skill cuts a path through a mirthful landscape, inhabited by a grotesque, carnival, circusy, pack of characters. The last time this landscape gave me the giggles was when I took a journey with Švejk. Sweeney is a comic writer; Laikonik Express is full of twists and turns that will leave you giggling and asking for a return ticket.
Oh, by the way: Nick Sweeney is a musician and lives in London. Laikonik Express is published by Unthank Books.