American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light
Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 320 pages,
The relationship between British and North American writing has often been a vexed one. On this side of the Atlantic, there’s often been a prevailing anxiety of influence, both cultural and economic: witness the hand-wringing about the inclusion of American novelists in the Man Booker Prize. ‘Like a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate,’ was Melvyn Bragg’s take on it—slightly belatedly perhaps, given that the prize has been sponsored by the Man Group (global leaders in ‘liquid, high-alpha investment strategies’) for the best part of a decade.
In American Smoke, Iain Sinclair approaches the problem from a different angle, charting the influence exerted on his own writing by a cluster of American writers he describes as ‘the heroes of my youth’. The names of these writers are largely those prescribed by Donald Allen’s New American Poetry: Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder all loom large. It’s not all poets, though: William Burroughs features extensively, as does the ex-pat Malcolm Lowry. These writers were more than exotics from the other side of the pond: they were, in many cases, closely engaged with British writers through personal correspondence, as well as the flourishing little magazine and small press scene of the time. Sinclair recalls writing speculatively as a student to William Burroughs in Tangier, asking for material for a student magazine; Burroughs duly replied with a story.
American Smoke drifts westward across the continent, from Olson’s Gloucester out to California. The book’s brief final section, ‘Ash’, makes it down to Chile: ‘No skies as pure as those over the Atacama desert’. But describing this book as having a trajectory suggests the presence of an orderly, overarching telos in what is, in fact, a series of complexly inter-related ‘bad journeys’. The sense of drift informs this book throughout. Any implied purpose is repeatedly frustrated: given the opportunity to visit Kerouac’s personal papers, for example, Sinclair is forced to decline because his companion needs to get home to sell his car. Even when contact is made, somehow the heroes of his youth remain elusive: as early as 1967, Ginsberg has ‘perfected a repertoire of standard anecdotes’; hearing Olson read at the Royal Festival Hall, Sinclair compares it unfavourably to the famous Berkeley event a couple of years previously, noting that this time, ‘[t]he world did not tilt on its axis. Applause was muted.’
If these moments refuse to yield the epiphanies that we might expect from them, American Smoke offers us instead an aggregate of incidental detail, the significance of which often exceeds its apparent arbitrariness. ‘A symbol too far?’ Sinclair asks at one point. Snooping around William Burroughs’s bathroom, he finds a small box with two Nazi coins inside. ‘Bill takes them everywhere,’ Burroughs’s assistant subsequently informs him. ‘They’re going into his eyes when he passes over.’ In Vancouver, Sinclair dutifully transcribes the official plaque commemorating the place where Malcolm Lowry’s shack once stood, but his attention is more fully engaged by:
a yellow-gold beer cap, CORONA LIGHT, with rusty serrated rim and a black crown. Nothing to do with Lowry; a token of some summer visitor, one of the conference attendees on the bus. I carry it away.
That sense of the possible significance of detritus is symptomatic of Sinclair’s work in this book. The detail of his writing is as razor-sharp as ever, its syntax full of unexpected lines of flight, and it is occasionally very funny—a painting is ‘[a]s competent and pointless as Augustus John’—but that detail is never, in Pound’s sense, luminous. It’s too unstable for that; its occlusions are more revealing than its clarities. American Smoke is documentary, but it plays fast and loose with the genre. Fact continually drifts into fiction. The book reaches its conclusion with Sinclair receiving an email from Carl Shutter, the last man standing from the days of Black Mountain College, who summarily informs him that ‘[y]ou are not an American. You will never understand Americans. You want to see Olson and Dorn from their trips to England. Forget it, man. You’ll never begin.’ Which offers the book as definitive a resolution as might be imagined, finally curing Sinclair of his trans-Atlantic ‘interests and obsessions’, except for the fact that Carl Shutter is entirely a creation of Sinclair’s imagination. Werner Herzog’s account of his own documentary art pertains to Sinclair’s too: if documentary were to confine itself to the facts, ‘the book of books in literature would be the Manhattan phone directory—four million entries, everything correct.’
American Smoke is a wonderful book. Sinclair is sometimes pigeon-holed as a ‘London’ writer, a critical opinion that overlooks the fact that some of his best writing takes place when he’s getting away from the city. That’s certainly the case in this book, as it was in Edge of the Orison, Sinclair’s superlative account retracing John Clare’s journey from Epping Forest to Northborough. Hamish Hamilton should be commended on the high standard of the present title’s production: the book’s dust-jacket folds out into a map of North America that lays out many of the names and stories contained in its pages. It’s both a beautiful idea, one that they used previously on Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, and something that signals its affiliation with that mid-60s moment of trans-Atlantic exchange, recalling the cartographic dust-jackets of books like Olson’s Maximus poems, Dorn’s The North Atlantic Turbine and J. H. Prynne’s Kitchen Poems. American Smoke recalls the heady contact of those days, vividly recalling the augmented sense of possibility that it engendered on both sides of the Atlantic.