Magnificent Joe by James Wheatley
Billed as a present day Of Mice and Men, James Wheatley’s debut transplants the basic elements of the Steinbeck classic – misunderstood mental disability in a depressed one-horse town – to early 21st century County Durham, but ditches farms for building sites, and throws most of the original subtlety and craftsmanship out of the window.
The structure and plot are pretty shaky: Wheatley kills of his title character and sketches the novel’s closing scenes (minus a few elements) in the prologue. Nothing new there of course, but unlike The Secret History or Sunset Boulevard, which slowly build to their (forgone) conclusions by steady accretion of hints and warnings, Wheatley’s book only builds up to Joe’s murder over the last 50 or so pages. For the most part, the book deals with the petty rivalries and entanglements of a group of childhood friends scraping a living and boozing their way into their 30s.
This story would have been an adequate kitchen-sink soap opera in itself, without much need to rope in difficult issues like mental illness – not to mention paedophilia, violence, racism and prostitution. All of these themes are dropped in casually (and graphically) to nudge the plot along, with no attempt to examine them with anything like their necessary sensitivity. In an interview to promote the book, Wheatley has stated, bizarrely: “Where I might have been tempted to address my ‘responsibility’ [to the subject matter] I instead made a deliberate effort to be offensive.” Well, at least it was deliberate.
Wheatley takes the need to do justice to the novel’s sense of place much more seriously, and it shows. The dialogue, from the grammar to the slang, is spot on, and the descriptions of the industrial and natural landscape are as precise as they are poetic. The atmosphere is also fittingly oppressive. Set in the days before the smoking ban, the foggy pubs the characters frequent are genuinely inhospitable (every 25 pages or so Wheatley has a character step outside for fresh air). And the grinding repetition of life lived hand-to-mouth comes across with claustrophobic clarity.
Ultimately, it’s frustrating that the same care wasn’t taken with serious topics that skim across the surface of the novel’s well-drawn background.
The editorial unit
Magnificent Joe is published by Oneworld Books at the paperback price of £12.99. For further information visit here.