Monday, March 13, 2017

Review of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

Just when you thought nothing original—truly original (I am, after all, a semi-cynical bibliophile)—could be done with Hitler and his legacy, along comes a story that blows the lid off.  Finding a crack in a secret history and tearing it wide open one utterly unpredictable page after another is Ned Beauman’s 2010 Boxer, Beetle.

Written in wry, clever prose that generates scene momentum toward the overarching storyline, Boxer, Beetle is the story of Seth Roach, a 4-foot-11, nine-toed, Jewish boxer looking to take his revenge on the idea of life in London of 1936.  Boozing, whoring, gambling and getting in fights in and out of the ring, Roach is a veritable tornado of spite and gall.  A unique physical specimen to say the least, he draws interest from would-be scientist Philip Erskine in the the early going of the novel.  Offered 50 quid a day if he can be measured and observed for eugenics research, Roach gives Erskine a slap to the face.  But erratic choices eventually drag him to the gutter, and Roach is forced to give in to the service of Erskine.  It takes learning what Erskine is doing with a colony of exotic beetles from Poland, however, for Roach to clue himself in to what precisely the word "eugenics" means...

In a parallel storyline set in modern times, Nazi memorabilia collector Kevin Broom gets the surprise of his life when a fellow collector asks him to look in on a friend who should have called back days ago. Broom taking the bait, there is a nasty surprise awaiting him in the apartment, but likewise too, a rare piece of memorabilia that Broom snaps up before a quick exit.  A rabbit hole he was always aware of but been able to avoid to that point, the dark side of collecting Nazi relics comes knocking at his door soon thereafter, and the grave of some unknown dead boxer named Seth Roach becomes of prime concern.

Highly uproarious, highly original, highly readable, Boxer, Beetle is one of those books that lures you in for style, grabs you for the singularity of the characters and plot, and then sets you drooling for the manner in which they are made to dance around one another.  Roach is a despicable character, for certain, but you still can't wait to find out what happens to him next. Erskine is even more despicable, but perhaps in an innocently deluded way, something which makes discovering his fate all the more satisfying. And Broom is just in for the ride of his life—whether he wants it or not, so best to hang on to find out how the whole scene coalesces.

The bottom line is, if you enjoy the work of Michael Chabon, Nick Harkaway, or David Mitchell, then by all means check out Beauman’s debut.  Boxer, Beetle rips with the same lexical energy, the same tongue and cheek sense of humor, and the same avaricious attack on plot and character, to truly give the reader a compulsive yet memorable read.  At least I won’t be able to forget Seth Roach…

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