25 February 1999

Withnail & Penman & Robinson & I

"The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman" is one of the best reads in an age, a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged fart writing about himself as a just-turned-teenager discovering booze, cigarettes, girls, and his grandfather's pornography collection. This is the book that some seem to be talking about when they invoke "Confederacy of Dunces"—funny, elegant and utterly stenchy, squelchy and full of the glories of shambolic, virulent, crapulent, blessed invective. Heaps of it. It's to be expected, but also to be congratulated. What other film aspires to the condition of literature or dankest self-loathing as Robinson's 1985 exemplar "Withnail and I"? In that damp, outrageously ribald film, Richard E. Grant as Withnail, embodies all the soddenness of post-collegiate pretension and dipsomania. "You're full of gin, you silly tool" is a common enough cry, and then there's the plaint upon consciousness of the first rounding thrum of hangover: "I feel like a pig shat in my head... I've gone blind, my bladder's exploding, I've got to have a slash." Propitiously, Robinson's portrait of a bollocksed boyhood (from the poxy adolescent's perspective) in 1950s England has the same furious cleverness, mounted in gorgeously cadenced descriptions that could leave you pissing your pants like clockwork with small-bladdered glee. Thomas is 13; mum and dad hate each other, but silently and with vicious actions; grandfather is Thomas' favorite, for the plate in his head and his collection of quaint pornography, which runs to photos of himself, prodigiously tooled, alongside a bog-bottomed woman encompassing an unlucky duck. Thomas falls in love, shits in the hats of his enemies in the coatroom at school, gets called out for the vainglorious wanker he is. Some might invoke "Catcher in the Rye," but Thomas isn't the precious little snot Holden Caulfield remains; closer kin is J.P. Donleavy's profane "Ginger Man," and many passages of "Thomas Penman" hew to the mad set-pieces of that masterpiece, much like Donleavy’s kitchen-destroying "goat dance." Robinson has the proper indecency to waver from first sex to further embarrassment, describing "tingling like sherbet" and how Thomas can "smell the hot earth, bluebells and her hair," then naturally passing on that he "could feel her racing heart and, as he began to fuck her, something cold going up his arse. Was it her? It wasn't. It was a dog, a fucking Corgi, sniffing and licking his bottom. He had paws on Thomas' back, and was trying to mount him." This is farce with spark, and prose with bite. It doesn't get any more exaggerated or true than this.

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman
by Bruce Robinson
Overlook, $24.95
278 pages


[Newcity, 25 February 1999]