REVIEW by Naomi Garnault

NWR Issue 105

The Poet and the Private Eye

by Rob Gittins

Rob Gittins’ second novel The Poet and the Private Eye is a refreshing cocktail of facts and fiction where Dylan Thomas’ final USA tour shakes up the marriage of a fictional private investigator, Jimmy. Based on real events, Jimmy is hired by ‘one of the biggest magazines in the world’ to substantiate an article so crudely damning to Thomas that it led the poet to sue the magazine for libel. Initially the sporadic switches between the two parallel story lines – Thomas’ and Jimmy’s – seem to spread the narrative too thin for any real grasp of either character to take hold. However, as the two lives gradually weave together, the novel stands as metaphor for how great poetry threads a tapestry between author and reader. And so, amidst a story of domestic distress, in stumbles a drunken poet larger than fiction to make or break Jimmy and Beth’s rocky marriage.

The Poet and the Private Eye tails Dylan Thomas through his final weeks as he ripped through the USA like a tornado, leaving behind endless debris including empty whisky bottles, blood, urine, smoke, a scrunched up letter from his afflicted wife, and fish meat extracted from his hair following a restaurant quarrel. As the novel embarks on its brazen portrayal of a man derailed and beyond shame, Jimmy comments sardonically at the ‘sick joke’ and apparently ‘unpoetic’ nature of Dylan Thomas’ antics. Yet as this novel unfolds we are asked to question if there was an intended punch-line to the circus of Dylan Thomas’ private life.

In focusing on one fact – that Thomas did indeed sue Time magazine over a negative portrayal – Gittins probes the idea that this was a man who cared how he was perceived. Perhaps Thomas was acting on some instinct to throw readers off his scent by sending out confusing glimpses of his personality. ‘Maybe we’d all been laughing at him… but the truth was that all the time he’s been laughing along with us. Maybe even at us.’

Though Gittins is new to book publishing – his first novel Gimme Shelter was published little under a year ago – Gittins has a long-established career as a screen and radio writer. His portfolio of work includes The Archers, Pobl y Cwm, Emmerdale, Holby City and The Bill, and he’s currently the longest serving writer for Eastenders. So how is Gittins adjusting to his new bookshelf habitat?

The skills of a screenwriter can be sensed throughout this novel. Traditional dialogue layout is stubbornly resisted, occasionally at the expense of the reader’s orientation. Banal phrases such as ‘he said’, ‘she said’ are left on the cutting room floor. More pressingly, character description is somewhat lacking (with the exception of the ‘grotesquely puppet-like’ ‘Subject Thomas’) and the stateside landscape is sketched out by hard inky facts rather than colourful prose. However that is the charm of this story, because it’s the narrator’s narrow and stoney outlook that is challenged throughout the novel and gradually the writing picks up colour under the growing influence of Dylan Thomas’ poetry.

Amidst the centenary year since Dylan Thomas’ birth, as Wales blooms with workshops, guided tours and evenings of musical homage to celebrate one of our greatest poets, Rob Gittins reminds us how Thomas’ words managed to hit far for a global audience. Though Thomas himself remains an elusive character, doomed to be misunderstood, or perhaps determined to be misunderstood, it is his poetry that can be translated with perfect accuracy into a range of cultures and backgrounds. Because his poetry is not, as Gittins’ points out, something to be understood, but rather felt.

Naomi Garnault is a contributor to NWR online.

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