A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It is difficult when describing this book not to find yourself trotting out phrases that make it sound less than it is: “this little book”, “this slim volume”, “a quiet yet sweet story”, “ a simple tale”.
On the other hand there is an equal danger in outlining the enormous themes (tolerance, race, culture, maleness and that’s before you even get to homophobia, religion and anal sex.…) of making this warm and humorous book sound heavy and off-putting, or even disturbingly graphic.
Gents is none of these things. And it is testament to the beautifully-judged writing that it falls into none of those traps.
This is the story of Ezekial (Ez) Murphy, a respectable church-going West Indian immigrant, who takes up a position as an attendant in a large council-run public toilets. He soon finds out that these public conveniences are being regularly used for a different purpose altogether: casual male-on-male sex, or cottaging.
At first shocked, then curious, Ez’s attitude is contrasted with that of his two co-workers. Rastafarian Jason sees the cottagers as evidence of the moral corruption of “whitey” and further evidence of his personal alienation from the society in which he finds himself. Their supervisor, Reynolds, enjoys mocking the “reptiles”, as he calls them, but is able to take a more adaptable approach when circumstance demands.
Things take an interesting turn when the council visit and say that, unless the cottaging stops, the “Gents” must be closed and the three men, who are dependent on the place to support their families, will lose their valuable jobs. Ez, Jason and Reynolds set about clearing the reptiles from the “swamp”, with an unexpected outcome…
Spare, simple and beautifully-judged, it is no surprise to find Gents was originally written as a film script. There are no long unwieldy passages of description, no flowery prose or in-depth character analysis.
And yet Collins beautifully manages to communicate the ambiguity of feeling and the tensions within his characters , often through the gaps and silences. Ez’s relationship with his wife, is depicted with an ear both to what is said and what is left unsaid and is beautifully done.
When he does describe things, Collins’ writing is impressively spare and often powerfully symbolic:
“The sentence echoed through the empty turnstyles. Once through the older man straightened his tie and walked up the stairs with an attempt at dignity…Affecting not to notice Jason’s approach, the youth turned and ran jauntily up the steps, as though he had remembered an appointment. His white trainers with their black soles ascended the stairs two at a time into the waiting light – white, black, white, black.”
The Gents itself works as a symbol of the societal undercurrents that lie both literally and physically under the surface of the city. Not only through the cottagers themselves (many described as bankers or accountants, well-off professionals from the neighbouring financial district with other lives and even girlfriends in their day-to-day existence), but also through the immigrant workers, propping up society, seeing what’s really going on and, literally, clearing up the mess.
Collins creates characters that are human and engaging. All three take different attitudes to the “reptiles” and whether these attitudes can be reconciled or not is one of the drivers of the book:
“The three of them trooped out, Reynolds slipped the heavy key into the lock and turned the tumblers so that the door was shut and locked behind them.
It seemed to Ez that they were departing like ghosts into the dusk, each on their separate paths, out into the pools of the winter street lights.”
Collins has a wonderful ear for dialogue and so it was surprising to learn he is not West Indian himself. If he had been, I wondered if perhaps he would have (could have) tackled the cultural, as well as religious, attitudes towards homosexuality in more detail. But, as this story works more as a parable than as gritty realism, perhaps that would have been a different book.
And despite being a paean to tolerance, there is still the odd cynical touch here and there, keeping Gents firmly away from any over-cosy or sentimental conclusions: for example, the clever hint of a question-mark that hangs over the issue of how much tolerance comes down to character, and how much down to the power of the pink pound.
Gents has been described as “one of those rare little gems” by John Self and “a classic moral fable” by The Times. I can’t disagree. A small book of big themes, all dealt with the lightest of touches, humour, generosity and a large dose of humanity, it can easily be read in an afternoon, yet the themes and characters will stay with you far longer.
This is simply a lovely book. Go and read it.
The Friday Project Limited 2007, 140 pp, ISBN-10: 1905548761
More Reviews and Info on Gents by Warwick Collins
See also our interview with Scott Pack from The Friday Project
Small But Perfectly Formed: Other Wafer-Thin Reads We Recommend
RosyB: An obvious candidate for “thin book” classic. Incredibly influential (and famous inspiration for Apocalypse Now). Ambiguous, poetic and, despite Chinua Achebe’s criticisms, still a powerfully human book, in my view.
Mhairi: I’m not a Hemingway fan at all, but I love this one. It’s the only book of his in which I felt that his famously sparse style actually worked to advantage. Deceptively simple, it works at every level. Old Santiago finally makes the catch of his life … but that’s only the beginning. By the time he finally reaches the shore … you’re emotionally exhausted.
Leena: Couldn’t possibly be shorter and more devastating.
Emma D: The best-written modern prose I’ve read in ages, and even though he’s running three stories, it didn’t feel perfunctory or too short in any way.
The Legend of the Holy Drinker by Joseph Roth, recommended by Mhairi
(Picture shows “Three Novellas” (Works of Joseph Roth) which includes The Legend of the Holy Drinker and is published by Overlook )
Mhairi: It should be unreadable because in places it’s almost painfully autobiographical – a novella about an alcoholic written by an alcoholic who was shortly to drink himself to death. It isn’t depressing though – far from it. Beautifully written in a style that’s as pared-down as Hemingway’s, but much more lyrical – it’s a whimsical, uplifting little gem (and it was turned into a remarkable film featuring one of Rutger Hauer’s finest performances …).
And Muriel Spark was consistently brilliant, my favourite being The Abbess of Crewe. A great, funny and odd little book.