Iain Sinclair American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light
Hamish Hamilton, 2013, 308pp, HB, £20, ISBN 978 0 241 14527 2
The observant will notice that the dustcover for the new Iain Sinclair book is (when fully revealed) a fold-out map of North America. American Smoke is part travelogue of North America, part memoir of Sinclair’s engagements with the Beats, part pyschogeography familiar to long-time Sinclair readers. The map shows destinations documented in the book: Lawrence, Lowell, Vancouver, Los Angeles. To be strictly accurate, it should have had another map on the reverse – one of the UK. Much of the narrative recalls events that took place in England: in St Leonards and Hastings on the South Coast, in the London home of socialite Panna Grady, in Croydon. But being strictly accurate wouldn’t be Beat and wouldn’t be Sinclair.
Sinclair is a pusher, dealing readers substances that bring a rush of peculiar associations and half-real memories (yours or his, you can’t tell). He doesn’t inform you of the exact nature of the merchandise mixed to his own formulae (how much of it is pure, how much of it is cut) and it would just be too uncool to ask him.
Of the Beats, Sinclair is closest in style to Burroughs, the most bookish of the Beats. His dry humour is close to Burroughs’. Yet Sinclair is too detached to be Beat and too self-effacing to be Gonzo. Reading a Sinclair book is like falling in with an itinerant evangelist, who hands you literature from pockets full of obscure tracts, street plans and stenographic scraps as you walk the streets of London. He seems completely genuine, though his information ranges from the prosaic and verifiable to the outlandish and impossible. You wonder if he is even aware of such distinctions.
American Smoke recounts a number of visits and residencies in the USA and Canada, often centring on attempts to commune with shades of admired writers, living and dead. In Beat style, occasionally places and periods are jumbled into a stream of free association, so it is easy for readers to muddle his 1967 and 1995 interviews with writers. Researchers will come away from the book with a handful of tangled leads and thought-provoking allusions but nothing precise enough to be used as academic footnotes.
Sinclair sketches the few living Beats in acerbic character portraits. Huncke in an overheated hotel room is “a sugar-skull hipster in a tropical hutch”. Kerouac’s brother-in-law, John Sampas, has “careful, wounded eyes”. Corso is encountered “head thrust forward, ski-jump like nose, tongue out, like a gargoyle from Notre-Dame.” Sinclair respectful of Gary Snyder and carefully describes his monk-like existence in the wild environs of the Sierra Nevada. The journalist’s instinct takes the upper hand for once.
It is Charles Olson who is the presiding spirit of this book, looming over Sinclair’s consciousness. The Black Mountain poet who died in 1970 is portrayed as a totemic polymath, a legendary figure full of prolix vitality and arcane enthusiasms. One cannot help but perceive Sinclair as paying homage to a person upon whose character and outlook he has modeled himself. He only met Olson once, at a reading at the Royal Festival Hall, though Olson was in London in the late Sixties while Sinclair was recording Ginsberg for The Kodak Mantra Diaries (1971). Olson’s huge appetite for writing, reading, company and overall life experience come across vividly, aided by Sinclair’s erudition and muscular, clipped prose.
The life – and, to a lesser extent, work – of Malcolm Lowry, another big-drinking literary heavyweight, runs through American Smoke. Sinclair rehashes Lowry’s squalid and mysterious death at the age of 47, perhaps suicide, perhaps murder. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Italian publisher of Kerouac and accidental self-immolator during the Marxist bombing of a power station, leads Sinclair to interview Muriel Hill, who knew Feltrinelli and acted as production assistant on the film Vulcano. Which leads back to Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Obvious, really.
When – after visiting Vancouver to find Lowry’s former residence – Sinclair connects Lowry’s place of death (the improbably named village of Ripe, East Sussex) with his own home a short distance away, he rationalises “the author [was] boxed and earthed on my doorstep […] You are obliged to cross oceans, witness forest fires, take open-top bus tours around Hollywood, before you are allowed to contemplate the names and dates on a local headstone.” Most of us would have done things differently – and come up with a narrative with a fraction of Sinclair’s élan.
One’s response to Sinclair’s non-fiction is largely determined by how receptive one is to his tangential approach to subjects. In search of fugitive recordings of the Beats made by his sound recordist Pavel Coen, Sinclair goes to Croydon, Coen’s last known location. Typically, he does not take a map, telephone numbers or any kind of assistance and seeks Coen by tramping streets and awaiting a fortuitous encounter to lead him to Coen. Predictably, he gets sidetracked, lost and learns nothing at all about the whereabouts of his errant recordist. It is psychogeography pure and unadulterated. One either finds the diversion amusing and revealing or frustrating and self-indulgent (or perhaps an admixture).
Buyers who take the dust-jacket puff at face value may be disappointed. “His first full engagement with […] the American Beats and their fellow travellers” does sound decidedly Beat-orientated. However, if Olson is not considered an out-and-out Beat then more than half of the contents of American Smoke relate to non-Beat subject matter (Olson, Lowry, Muriel Hill, Mamie van Doren, Cal Shutter, Ballard). Although Kerouac is discussed in the Massachusetts section, Ginsberg gets only a walk-on part and the description of Sinclair’s 1995 pilgrimage to Burroughs in Lawrence is scanty. It is a not an unexpected lapse that Lawrence has been misspelled as “Laurence” on the map dust jacket. The error will stare balefully from the book’s spine, forever reproaching the publishers. It is a Beat touch of looseness to a book Beat in style if not wholly in content.