REVIEW by Ed Garland

NWR Issue r33

The Homeless Heart-throb

by Crystal Jeans

Cover of The Homeless Heart-throb by Crystal Jeans

‘His urine was starting to scare him,’ notes the narrator of ‘Dogs Only’, one of the milder stories in this sharp new collection (interwoven into novel-form) from Crystal Jeans. Like many of the characters in The Homeless Heart-throb, the protagonist of ‘Dogs Only’ drinks a lot and is going through some difficulties. His urine scares him because it gives off ‘the warm smell of corned beef’. He’s just had his first swig of breakfast lager, having woken up in the Joy Division T-shirt he’s been wearing for two straight weeks. ‘He imagined his liver as a tandoori chicken breast, all lumpy, red skin – he knew what cirrhosis looked like.’ We meet him as he finally realises things might have started to go seriously wrong, but he’s not yet ready to give up all the wrongness.

Jeans has a talent for connecting intimate bodily events to the pangs of emotional crisis. I read this book in two sittings, and one of the effects it produced was a kind of disgusted exhilaration arising from its ruthless fountains of literary piss and puke. I had dim flashbacks to my early twenties, when I used to use the fictional territories of Charles Bukowski and Irvine Welsh as a kind of buffer zone between myself and the abyss, something I could point to and say look, I might drink and smoke and disappoint people too much but I’m not in the state that those guys are in. But these flashbacks are superficial. Jeans has more heart than Bukowski and Welsh, and her style is both more sophisticated and more efficient, has more tenderness and more sting. Her diverse cast of characters struggle to navigate through hard jobs and costly habits and barbed relationships. Their brand of bad luck comes with its own kind of humour: ‘I only have one nice suit and it’s not even nice.’ Subtle details give the narratives a sensory immediacy: the ‘calm ticks’ heard in a car’s interior as the driver indicates before turning. The boy who ‘stood up with clicking knee-joints’ and walked out of a party. Careful observations like these are a pleasure to read. Each story is given a date, and they all take place between the 90s and the early 00s, within a certain radius of the same road, the same shops, and the care home that used to be a mental hospital. The characters are all friends or colleagues or neighbours, some close, some more distant. A peripheral character glimpsed in one story will be the centre of another, and the presence of the local homeless man is skilfully spread through them all.

When bodies are not leaking their full range of fluids, they are compared to food: spaghetti legs, sausage meat feet, a throat like a loaf of bread. The stories concern revenge fantasies, difficult days at work, and attempted escapes from chronic boredom. One of my favourites ,‘A Peacock is a Good Thing’, features a character who is the culmination of the bodies-as-food theme: Pauline Burger. Pauline is ‘built like a fridge’ and lives on her own with a few ‘bloody massive’ cats. She has a habit of smoking six cigarettes out of a 10-pack and putting the remainder in a post box. The local postman, Marv, begins to smoke these mysterious fags and eventually catches Pauline in the act of posting them. He chases her down and they spend the evening in Pauline’s flat. Her husband has left her, and Marv’s wife is dead. A peacock is loose in the neighbourhood, and although neither of them have seen it, they’ve both heard its mating call. Marv encourages Pauline to play the piano in her living room, and when she does, her hands move across the keyboard ‘like drunken spiders’. After the music, Pauline leaves the room, crying, and Marv goes to comfort her in the yard. He sees the peacock on the wall, just before one of the cats chases it away. It’s a touching story of intrigue and awkwardness that reveals the characters in all their vulnerability and indecency, casual racism included. This particular flaw in a few of The Homeless Heart-throb’s characters – which doesn’t always go unchallenged – uncomfortably aligns its fictional world with the UK we have lived through and continue to live in today, where racist abuse is on the increase (and rich racists are given airtime and column-inches and we have failed to close down the turd-lagoon in which the Tory party fishes for Prime Ministers). Jeans’ realist vision includes all the offensive residues of our national ethical mess.

The final story, which brings the Homeless Heart-throb himself into focus, gives us glimpses of the man in a single location across the whole time-span in which the rest of the stories are set. It is both hugely satisfying and properly affecting, the ideal finish for a knotty narrative web.

We publish on our New Welsh Rarebyte label Ed Garland’s debut book, a collection of essays called Earwitness, A Search for Sonic Understanding in Stories, on 31 October.

Crystal Jeans’ story, ‘Split Me in Two, Gareth Moon’, from The Homeless Heart-throb, originally appeared in New Welsh Review 103, spring 2014. A nascent version of the Heart-throb can also be spotted, in New Welsh Reader 109, autumn 2015. The Homeless Heart-throb is published tomorrow (1 August 2019) by Honno.

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previous review: John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary?
next review: From Seven to the Sea


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