I originally reviewed Fags and Lager by Charlie Williams on December 12th, 2006.
Fags & Lager is the second novel in the Royston Blake trilogy by British crime novelist Charlie Williams. It also seems to possess one of the more eye catching titles of any book in recent memory. OH, the looks that I received on the subway while reading this one. I am surprised that the American release of the book retained the books original title in this culture of if-it-offends-me-then-be-gone-with-it but I’m glad that it did.
Royston Blake is the doorman at a local pub. Blake, to put it mildly, has a history of violence. The neighborhood grocer is having problems with his daughter. She has a new boyfriend and is spending a lot of time with him. This new boyfriend may be linked to a rise in criminal activity in town. Blake is hired ostensibly to look into the boyfriend but the real reason is to run him out of town. The princely sum for just such a task is 400 “tinnies” of lager and 400 packs of fags, thus the title of the book.
Royston Blake has got to be one of the better characters in recent memory and a stunning example of a first person narrative. Everything is filtered through the dialogue and experience of Blake. If he doesn’t see it then it doesn’t happen, but because of his pig headed and at times delusional personality we are only given his perception of what happens which is often far from reality. Another layer to this story is the slang heavy dialogue. You find yourself having to figure out lines like “I put down the blower and scratched my swede”. Due to the exposition-less nature of the book it was like learning a new language at times. All of this needs to be filtered through to get to the central story at hand which is a darkly cynical, blackly humorous, bloody social comedy. I want to read the book again just to pick up on the narrative clues that I’m sure that I missed the first time around.
All of this takes place in a fictional town called Mangel on the outskirts of an unnamed city. The town itself is a fascinating self enclosed unit populated with the oddest damn cast of characters that I’ve seen in a long time. Or are they only eccentric because of Blake’s faulty wiring. At times his interpretation of the events that are transpiring are so far off base that he can become a frustrating character, you may want to reach through the page and choke him but you don’t want to stop reading.
Part of Blake’s complexity lies in the conflicting emotions that we have for him. We want to like him because he does manage to do some good. But his acts that can be labeled as good are not done out of selflessness in fact he is possessed of a total and complete lack of sympathy or empathy for anyone’s situation and can only be categorized as selfish. It’s telling that when Blake receives what should be good news near the end of the book we the readers have to groan because we can’t even muster what it takes to be happy for him as we imagine the unique ways in which he will mess it up.
He were quiet for a bit, then I heard him mumbling summat. Then the line went dead.
I called him back.
‘You hang up on us again, you fuckin’ wanker,’ I says nice and calm. ‘You hang up again an’ I’ll–’
He only hung up again, didn’t he.
I felt a mite aggrieved at that, and I don’t mind telling you I took it out on the blower. Weren’t long before I calmed down, mind. A professional keeps his place tidy, so I went downstairs to get the broom from under the stair. After I’d swept all the bits of blower up I went looking for summat with a hood to wear. There were nothing like that in me wardrobe or under the stair with the other coats, but I found an old parka in Fin’s room. It were well tight round the shoulders and gut and chest and arms and head and neck but otherwise it were a good fit. I zipped it right up and clocked meself in the mirror. You couldn’t hardly see through the snorkel bit at the front but that’s how I wanted it. I didn’t want no one recognising us in town, things being as they was, and this were spot on for that. Right smart I looked. Bit like an Action Man. You know, the one with the parka. Only thing letting us down were the trousers. So I went and put some on.
Blake is also aware that he is addressing an audience and is constantly breaking down the fourth wall while at the same time referring to himself in the third person. If anyone has ever seen the movies Alfie or Ferris Bueller’s Day off where the main characters will stop and address the camera directly then you’ll have an idea of the Blake/William’s use of the alienation effect.
I think a psychologist reading this book would have a field day in attempting to diagnose the psychosis that is Royston Blake.