Between the glittering mirage & the dust of reality

Posted on December 19, 2007


By Jonathan Woods

“Trocchi!” gags the interviewee. “As in, something seems to be stuck in my Trocchi?” the interviewer asks. The interviewee’s face turns bright red; his eyes bug out. “Quick,” shouts someone from the back of the room, “Use the Heimlich maneuver before he expires.” “Oh, you mean the porn writer,” says the young widow in the front row, the one with the long languid legs and the short sassy skirt. And the bodacious bifurcated bazooms.

That scenario sums up the problem of Alexander Trocchi, dead since 1984. Pretty much no one outside the British Isles has heard of him. Or, if they have, it’s for his S&M masturbation books such as White Thighs and Thongs. Or his heroin addiction. Nevertheless, Trocchi’s novel Young Adam is a seminal work of noir genius that should be on everyone’s list of books to read before the world ends.

Joe, the sexual predator who narrates Young Adam, is the prototype of the new human arisen from the ashes of two world wars. He is cut from the same sociopathic cloth as Patricia Highsmith‘s Tom Ripley and Cormac McCarthy‘s Chigurh. As the story begins, he seems harmless enough. But like a chigger he burrows under our skin and begins to fester.

In the opening scene an exquisite female corpse, naked or almost, floats by the barge on which Joe works as a deckhand. In the process of retrieving the body and notifying the police, our narrator gives no hint that he has an earlier connection with the woman. But the presence of the sultry cadaver inspires Joe to pursue his lust for Ella, the wife of his employer. The police remove the body and life in the claustrophobic confines of the barge unfolds, from bickering over a fried egg to loading a shipment of coal, from peeling potatoes for the next meal to Joe’s sinister stalking of Ella. In short order Joe moves from gazing carnally at Ella’s legs and ass to secretly groping her under the dinner table while her husband smokes a cigarette and sips his tea.

Joe is a drifter, floating through the hours and days without purpose except to find the next tantalizing fuck. His power as a sexual predator is the hypnotic, unstoppable maelstrom which drives the novel and in whose dangerous currents the other characters swirl like helpless acolytes. Or victims. But when Joe finally consummates the act of lust with Ella there is little pleasure in it, a cold rutting in the wet night grass by the canal. He lives only for the hunt. As he later says of himself: “I am a rootless kind of man. Often I find myself anxious to become involved with other people, but I am no sooner involved than I wish to be free again.”

Joe is detached. As his fallen state detaches him from all that is outside him. His endless quest for the next fuck is driven by this dialectic, the dichotomy between the glittering mirage he sees with his eyes and the dust of reality at the end of his fingertips. But unlike Camus‘ Meursault who commits murder while in a daze of North African heat and blinding sunlight, Joe is a cold, calculating creature, always aware of the dangers that lurk.

Part I of Trocchi’s novel moves in a straight and inevitable line from the discovery of the drowned woman, a “slow white thing which sagged beneath the surface of the water… [her] water-logged petticoat like the petals of a flower peeling back over the creamy weight of her thighs,” to Joe’s taking of Ella on the canal bank:

I held her firmly against me, my thumbs under her armpits, messaging the damp hairs, my fingers like claws at the soft flesh of her shoulders…My hands dropped to her haunches, pulling her to me, so that her thick abdomen came hard against my own clothed body…

Afterwards…the sides of her abdomen and her flanks were covered in a thin lather of sweat.

There is only a hint of the dark secrets yet to unfold when Ella’s husband, on a pub crawl with Joe, opens the local newspaper to the story of the drown girl and reads that the police are “investigating the possibility of foul play.”

With the opening of Part II, the reader is instantly drawn into a breathless world where time twists back and forth and truth is as elusive as love or hope. Joe writes: “I killed Cathie. There’s no point in denying it since no one would believe me.” In his next breath Joe asserts that Cathie’s death by drowning was an accident. They’d gone down by the canal to fuck for old time sake. Afterwards she tripped and fell. She couldn’t swim. Any possibility of finding the linear truth is now thrown into disarray.

Joe, it becomes clear, is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Later he says: “…I realized my own position was dangerous, that there was only my word for it that it was an accident. Or was it an accident?” Meanwhile, the police, unaware of Joe’s prior relationship with Cathie or even his existence, settle their sights on a plumber and father of two named Daniel Goon as the murderer. For poor Goon “was known to have been intimate with the murdered woman.” That and the fact that Cathie was naked in the water is enough to seal the plumber’s fate.

And so the wheels of justice grind inexorably onward and Goon is the grist that will inevitably fall beneath those wheels. We watch fascinated as Joe himself fixates on the fate of Goon and as he narrates the fecund details of his prior life with Cathie, the events of her death, his destruction of the relationship between Ella and her husband before Joe abandons the barge life, his casual bedding of Ella’s step-sister Gwendoline.

Yet even Joe is perplexed by the inevitability of Goon’s fate. He writes: I found it difficult to conceive what evidence they could have against Goon. Goon had nothing to do with it. And I was quite convinced that I had destroyed all possible evidence. But there is naught to be done. On the eve of Goon’s conviction for Cathie’s murder, Joe catches a casual shag with the pitiful slag of a wife of the night watchmen from whom he rents a room in town to be close to Goon’s trial.

It’s all the same to Joe, as he drifts through his existence, taking what he needs at the moment. Covering his tracks. Taking no responsibility. His is the perfect, unfettered life that we watch with endless fascination even as we claim revulsion at his amoral outlaw existence.

Trocchi learned the same truth that John Milton uncovered five centuries earlier. There is nothing more alluring and seductive than a fallen angel. In Young Adam Trocchi presents that truth with dense, fetid brilliance. And if Joe is the young Adam, what will he be up to in middle or old age?


Jonathan Woods is a full-time writer living in Dallas, Texas. When not writing he works part-time in a small art gallery: Dahlia Woods Gallery.

Posted in: Essays