Back around 1980, I was in London, staying with a friend in Camden Town and visiting used-book shops whenever I could. On one frosty morning, I found myself on Farringdon Road, where a rubicund gentleman named George Jeffery held the last remaining license to sell books from wooden barrows on the city streets. Every Saturday, all the London book “runners” would congregate around these flatbed wagons, jostling and elbowing each other for good position. At 9 a.m., George would take a sip of coffee from his thermos, then whip off the canvas tarp covering one of the book-laden barrows — there were four or five — and hurriedly step back. In a berserker frenzy, runners would scoop up all the choice titles in a matter of seconds, after which George would saunter down to the next tarp with everybody madly scurrying after him.
I have seldom spent better mornings in my life. I say mornings because, naturally enough, I returned the following Saturday. On that second visit, I was introduced to a dealer who specialized in the Beats and the Black Mountain poets. His name was Iain Sinclair. We never met again, but I soon heard more about him.
Over the past 35 years, Sinclair has come a long way, though one could also argue that he hasn’t come far at all. Now known for his novels (“Downriver” won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize), frequent essays (many in the London Review of Books), and such studies in urban topography as “London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25,” Sinclair has nonetheless remained a kind of latter-day English beat, the exponent of a baroque, freewheeling prose that dazzles relentlessly, even remorselessly. If you ever feel that the plain E.B. White/George Orwell transparent style is — whisper it softly — really kind of flat and boring, try Sinclair. If you are drawn to English that doesn’t just sing, but sings the blues and does scat and rocks the joint, try Sinclair. His sentences deliver a rush like no one else’s.
“American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light,” additionally described as “A Fiction of Memory,” is certainly a head trip worth taking. But those new to Sinclair may need to adjust their expectations. Sinclair assumes you will know his references. He’s not going to explain a lot, as he relates his visits to the homes and home territories of Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry, Gary Snyder and other writers. Don’t expect chronological tidiness, either. Sinclair bounces around in time and segues into odd digressions: For instance, he reflects at length on Nazi Albert Speer’s habit of mentally walking across Europe or even Siberia — the miles precisely calculated — as he paced back and forth in the Spandau prison yard, year after year. Sinclair is, in fact, himself a pilgrim of derangement, always tracking the ley lines of spiritual energy and stepping the routes of his heroes as they wandered drunkenly from bars to hotels to hovels.
As like calls to like, Sinclair gravitates to visionaries, cultural rebels and all those who live by their wits or on the edge. Edward Burra’s watercolors, which Sinclair calls the “best windows” onto Lowry’s nightmarish “Under the Volcano,” showcase “ghost dances of outside animals and late-humans grinding bones in subterranean bars. Feathers and fruits in ornate glass coffins. Voodoo eyes made from bottle-stops. Zoot-suit skeletons fleshed in labial folds. Barbiturate jazzers eating their own tongues in El Greco delicatessens. Delicious fur-collared Harlem whores dealing tarot cards in all-night cafeteria."
While the seeming shapelessness of Sinclair’s “memoirs” can sometimes leave one slightly unmoored, his individual pen portraits are as neat as Oscar Wilde quips. The essence of cool, Gregory Corso “knows just how to put his foot on the fender of a car.” Antiquarian book dealer Greg Gibson looks like “the fated man who comes back from the whaleboat disaster to ghost a tale of marine cannibalism.” Another Gibson — the lanky, bespectacled science fiction writer William Gibson — moves “through airports with such familiarity that he barely registered on their surveillance systems.”
Sinclair obviously possesses a photojournalist’s eye for oddity and the telling detail, irresistibly transcribing this sign from a medical complex: “Baby Safe Haven. Please Leave Newborn Baby at Hospital Emergency Room or a (Staffed) Fire Station. No Questions Asked.” Visiting the estate of a very rich woman, he notes that “men, looking after the shrubs and herbaceous borders, don’t smoke until they leave the property.” Other observations veer toward the surreal: “English pastoral unravelled as riverbank dwellers crept from the woods to show off their tattoos.”
Sometimes, Sinclair lets out all the stops, as in his description of Dylan Thomas in America:
“This crumpled, swollen-bellied man with the stained nicotine teeth was the original post-war performance poet, playing to packed crowds, and losing, in the sweats and fears of hypnotic projection, all sense of self. The preacherly mannerisms of his Methodist ancestors, and the seductive rumble and thunder of voice from the abused instrument of his body, mesmerized the uptown poetry mob. Why had he crossed the Atlantic? The questions never stopped. ‘To continue my lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes,’ he said. And said again. . . . A hundred and fifty readings, up and down the country; death flights, claustrophobic trains, cars bear-squeezed with host-institution academics and faculty wives.”
In between accounts of Charles Olson’s Gloucester, Mass., Burroughs’s Lawrence, Kan., and Lowry’s Vancouver, Sinclair passes along his own enthusiasms: “Beyond the prose of Robert Creeley (especially ‘The Gold Diggers’) and Ed Dorn (‘The Rites of Passage’), I held to the conviction that Douglas Woolf was the finest, surest, most sinewy and subtle craftsman on the planet.” He mentions “four strange western novels by the Oxford academic Brian Catling. His Amerika was like Kafka’s, better than the real thing; a hallucinatory construct out of ‘True Grit’ and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian.’ ” (Note to self: Look for Catling’s novels.)
Near the end of “American Smoke,” Sinclair finds himself in Berkeley, Calif., outside Serendipity Books. Its owner, Peter Howard, almost single-handedly established the collectibility of writing from the 1960s. But this legend among bookmen — according to one friend, he resembled “an aged, unkempt and unshaven derelict” — has just recently died, and his store would soon close. Sinclair’s memory consequently drifts back to the time in London when he first met Howard, who had methodically gone through all his for-sale books and bought enough to fill a couple of boxes. Now, though, Sinclair is himself seeking two hard-to-find mysteries written by Lowry’s wife Margerie Bonner. Might Serendipity have any copies? From the store’s vast holdings emerge both Bonner titles. “I was dizzy with gratitude and turned, in trepidation, to check the prices. The pencil markings were my own. I had parted with both items, unread, many years ago, when Peter invigilated my stock. The cycle was complete.”
In his final pages, Sinclair recognizes how much the Americanness of his favorite writers will always elude him. “Their intensities would never be mine.” No matter. Sinclair’s own intensities — as evidenced in this book — are just as crazed, just as magnificent.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
Journeys to the End of the Light By Iain Sinclair
Faber & Faber. 309 pp. $27