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A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter
GLOOMY and hilarious, Greg Baxter’s mocking novel about a failed novelist (himself, in a wryly-created version of the dank Dublin bedsitter life of the exiled American artist) will have you whooping as you reach for the Luger to end it all. He lays it all out at first: the arrival in Dublin, crushed by failure, his acquisition of a job teaching creative writing (no! not that!) in the Irish Writers’ Centre, his smothering, humiliating memories. But it’s not long before he opens the gun cabinet, with a rib-busting, vicious description of a session of the Sewanee writers’ week, carefully calibrated with the use of forgotten, once-famous writers. “A group of white-haired and weathered figures were standing around looking like Southern writers,” he writes, sharpening up his stiletto.
“If you’ve ever seen a group of them together, you’ll know what I mean. The closest I can come to describing it accurately is a highbrow and slightly effeminate fishing trip.” It was at this stage that I actually put down the book and laughed out loud. Baxter has a killing eye for the telling detail, and watching him poking fun at the writing scene is like watching a horrid, intelligent little boy poking hopefully at the corpse of a putrefying lizard with a pointy stick – what can you do but snicker. His mentor, it soon turns out, will be Barry Hannah – a fabulously typical character: the novelist as liar. Barry is in the middle of chemo, and eats only pink stuff through a straw. But when he drags Baxter off on a search for a burger, mitching from the conference, Baxter – blind as a bat – ends up driving them along the country roads, and is gobsmacked when Barry meets a coven of rednecks, moustachioed and survivalist, inspecting their Stars and Bars and ammo and reliving their defeat; Barry, whose books are awash with moustachioed Deep South villains just like these, agrees vociferously with their hogwash. Aha, so are all his promises of publication for Baxter lies too? Mm? Hm? Mm? From this villainy Baxter delves further, into the death of his grandfather, a Waffen SS man, and his grandmother’s marriages of convenience – material any writer would give his right ear for, of course – and we’re back to the flat in Dublin, now shared with an Icelanding playwright for whom everything is part of her stories. Anyone who’s spent any time in the horror subgenre of writers’ retreats and hope will love this book, or else find it so terrifying that they run for their life. Terribly funny; perhaps too sharp for anyone but the brave.