No Holds Barred

Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess; drawing by David Levine

This is a most difficult novel to review, not because it is a quarter of a million words long and a good deal shorter in quality, but because it is confusing in its intentions. It begins, for instance, with the narrator, an ancient queer named Toomey, getting kicked in the teeth by his so-called “secretary,” and the next 100-odd pages see him working his way through three other boyfriends at different stages of his life—language extremely coarse, no holds barred. Not unnaturally—odd as that phrase may seem in such a context—we get the impression that we are reading a grim study of the gay life, and this opinion is supported by various bits of evidence: 1) the word fuck is present on page after page, but there is a complete absence of cunt; 2) tits do appear and even a clitoris, but the former are falsies of a sort and the latter a ghastly blunder (wrong bed, when stoned); 3) only the men are allowed to be naked; 4) all sexual intimacies, including assaults in bars by sailors, exclude the female.

Exceptions emerge as we read on, but are they really exceptions? The principal character in the book is male but not gay: unfortunately, he is a priest who eventually becomes Pope Gregory XVII, so he is not allowed to play the organ. Toomey’s sister—a fine girl, though always in her clothes—makes a promising heterosexual start but soon goes over to the lizzies. Her husband, a flashy composer who is by far the best-drawn character in the whole novel, goes to Hollywood and marries five more women—which, God knows, should strike a heterosexual chord. But Mr. Burgess has doomed him to be sexually sterile, so his six marriages are nothing but the neurosis of a frantic eunuch. Finally, a couldn’t-be-more-normal husband and wife show up, both well equipped physically with everything two four-letter words could describe, and Mr. Burgess encourages us to hope that there is a future for the race in this young pair. But this only shows how little we know about Mr. Burgess. The newlyweds go off to darkest Africa to do useful social work, and have strips cut off them (only their heads can be shown in the morgue) by enthusiastic black converts to Christianity (real flesh, real blood, yum-yum, plenty-good Christian eucharist).

Obviously Mr. Burgess must have his reasons for being so determined to discontinue the human race. Dame Rebecca West, referring to the novel the other day, said that it was about “the origin of evil,” but apart from certain theological passages in which the old story is trotted out (i.e., God is perfection and could not create evil, but in his goodness he gave us free will, which we used to create evil ourselves), it seems equally likely that the struggle between evil and muscular Christianity is what the book’s about, with God choosing,…

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