Reviews

February 15, 2010      

Protest! by Steve Finbow, Melissa Mann and Joseph Ridgwell

Publisher: Beat the Dust Press

Review by David F. Hoenigman

Protest! Is the first release from UK based Beat the Dust Press. The cover art of the square, hardback book is reminiscent of the Stones’ Exile on Main St. album sleeve and features black and whites photos of Rimbaud, Artaud, prostitutes on a corner, street riots, retro SF artwork, paintings of historic battles, a female face marked for plastic surgery…etc. All with the word “Protest!” in red capital letters scrawled across the top. The broad disparity of imagery perhaps suggesting a wider sense of the word than we’re accustomed to. Inside we find the writing of Steve Finbow, Melissa Mann and Joseph Ridgwell, each writer takes about 60 pages to state their piece.

Perhaps Steve Finbow is protesting against writing in typical form. His “Asylum Beach” is a swirl of surreal Malone Dies-like institutions, Genetian cell fantasies (or not), ogling sunbathing Thai girls (or not), Guy Ritchiesque character interviews, beating a Buddhist(?) priest to death on a filthy used condom beach, all the while receiving Philip K. Dick telegrams.

It includes a memorable scene of a fresh seafood lunch:

“On his knees on the beach, he notices something translucent ahead of him. He crawls towards it. Crabs and flies make way, return. A jellyfish. Tendrils eaten away by fish or shrivelled in the sun. Its globular body remains, a pale limpid white with pink and blue undertones, like frozen skin or sun-flared porcelain. The centre of its body looks like the dial on an old rotary phone. Or a moulded vanilla blancmange shot with rhubarb and iodine. He digs his fingers into the mass, tears off a chunk, brings it to his mouth, bites down into it, chews, and swallows. Then on all fours, head down, biting, biting off pieces, spitting out what he cannot swallow, until the jellyfish is nothing more than a dismemberment of matter, a stage towards nothingness, a dislocation of the universe. Satiated, he stands, throws back his head, roars into the sky.”

Wow! What the fuck is going on? It’s an exhilarating onslaught.

I love the brief plays on words here and there:

“He is there and not there. They are here but not here. Not there during the act. Not they during the act. Not their during the act.”

I love the rhythm throughout. In fact, it just sort of grabbed me and dropped me off at the end. Confronted with such rhythm I tend to madly follow it at the expense of my overall understanding, and I believe this piece could be interpreted in a million different ways but let me take a crack at it: released in Bangkok and/or the Thai beaches, a man feels as though he’s escaped from his cell (the treatment he’s usually administered by society), given the items on display his morality (the priest) is an annoyance that must be dispensed of, maybe he picked up a used copy of Dick’s We Can Remember it For You Wholesale at one of the cheap book stores on Khaosan Rd. The sun, constant drinking, thorough fulfillment of elsewhere stifled desires, reading books in the moments that his head is clear – and reality starts to waver, to spiral, to jellyfish.

Just a thought. Anyway, great writing Mr. Finbow. It’s relentlessly exuberant.

In Melissa Mann “The Beautiful Fight” we find protest in a more traditional sense – the desire to make a strong statement in the hope of rallying people to your cause. The strong-willed Jude (a woman) takes advantage of the weak-willed (and dysmorphic) Karen in order to extend a political agenda. Karen agrees to a tremendous physical sacrifice that Jude hopes to broadcast on YouTube. I would do readers a great disservice to divulge too many details, but things don’t turn out so well and in the aftermath Karen may just hit upon what could be the backbone of…everything:

“You know what I think though, Jude? I reckon…I mean, well, maybe the cause yer fighting for – women’s rights, animal rights, whatever – in’t the one yer think yer fighting for at all.” Jude frowns. “At the end o’the day, like, I reckon all causes are really just about yerself. Mainly, anyway, don’t yer think, Jude? The real fight is with yerself and…and for yerself, in’t it? At the end o’the day.”

That whatever we claim to be championing is really just something we hope to see our authority or influence extended within: causes, art, religion, clout; it’s all about yourself. Welcoming others aboard your lifeboat of grievances in order to justify them.

But then Jude does make many valid points. Like this memorable tirade in a strip club:

“pole-dancing is for the poor, the abused and the hopeless. It demeans women and makes ‘em victims. You lot out there, waving yer dirty money at ‘em, are consumers of live human beings. It’s like fuckin’ cock fightin’, this is, only yer’ve taught ‘em to dance fo’ yer.”

So, even if it is all about yourself it can still be valid and beneficial to society but you must be careful not to release within yourself the same insanity and greed for power that fuels what you started out fighting against. We are all susceptible to this.

I wanted to watch the barbarous YouTube clip they were making. I wanted Karen to be sacrificed up for my short-term curiosity. And reflecting back on the pole-dancing speech – isn’t that what pornography is? Isn’t anyone who’s willing to be filmed in acts of extreme degradation at the very least suffering from drastically low self esteem? It’s wrong for us to take advantage of these people for our own amusement, right? How and when did we acquire this appetite?

There’s much more going on in “The Beautiful Fight”, Melissa Mann’s story raises a lot of issues. It’s brilliantly crafted. It’s chilling.

Joseph Ridgwell’s “The Battle of Barncleuth Square” tells the tale of a homeless UK poet not really eking out an existence in the rundown King’s Cross area of Sydney. It’s presented as an autobiographical story, the narrator referred to as Ridgwell. Here we see lifestyle as protest. A complete refusal to conform to society:

“That was my problem, I was a dreamer, somebody unable or unwilling to adapt to the rigours of modern living. Then there were the others, the other people. I just didn’t understand them, the way they looked, walked, talked, their hatred, love, pain, suffering, jealousy – I didn’t understand any of it. All I wanted to do was drift away.”

Of course, it’s almost an unconscious protest. It could be just his personality or his destiny, a position some simply gravitate towards. Like the oddballs, drunks, and prostitutes he portrays for us: the Radio Man, Bibi the Brazilian Trannie, Instamatic Camera Lady, Growler.

At one point he attempts to get a job at a coffee shop but, due to an inability to do any task properly, is let go halfway through his first day. His way of thinking is his downfall but also his salvation, his vitality often shaking off the hopeless.

Shortly after exiting the coffee shop:

“Despite my earlier optimism, it appeared that I’d hit rock bottom. Then it dawned on me. What did it matter? When it comes right down to it, rock bottom isn’t as bad as you might expect. I still felt the same and looked the same. In fact I was the same. I just didn’t have any money.”

That the story is set around Sydney’s Millennium New Year’s Eve festivities gives it an atmosphere of an impending something and later the wobbling purity of a new beginning. The Suits arrive with their official papers shortly into the new year. The authorities are breaking up the happy makeshift community. Ridgwell’s writing is a celebration of all that is comforting and fleeting a la Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski, though it exposes the toll this lifestyle takes on those who live it (by choice or otherwise) it opts to view these people possessing a unique dignity and to consider them with understanding and affection.

“In all the time I knew him the Growler never uttered an intelligible word. That was why he was called the Growler. He just growled all day long, that’s what he did. And along with Baldie, his partner in crime, he was the main architect and constructor of the seemingly never-ending series of open-air rooms that made both of them famous. And there is something to be said for that.”

As representative of this dignity the community does not go down without a fight. Readers will not soon forget Baldie’s final display of protest the following morning. That Ridgwell and another poet friend named Beermatt watch the battle from a safe distance says something about the varying levels of commitment to this lifestyle and how the truly entrenched are beyond self-preservation.

All in all, it’s quite a debut from Beat the Dust Press; I look forward to future releases.

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