Thursday, 2 November 2017

And the Ass Saw the Angel, by Nick Cave

Euchrid Eucrow is the last word in crazy misfits. The second born but sole surviving twin, Euchrid is born in a rusted out car to a grotesquely drunken beast of a mother and a browbeaten, cruel, brute of a father. It's mostly down hill from there. He lives in a junk heap shack on the edge of a sugarcane town in an isolated valley in the middle of nowhere. Euchrid is not a good advertisement for isolation. Probably also not a poster boy for Incest but that’s less his fault.

As an adolescent, the abused and neglected Euchrid stays out of the way of his monstrous parents, preferring to spend long hours in the hills by himself. He collects skulls, hair, blood, teeth, scabs, toenail clippings…some his own, some of the creatures his father traps and tortures, some from murdered townspeople. Keeping it varied. He constructs a grotto of his treasures, half hideaway, half shrine… He spies on the townspeople, hiding from their fists and accusing eyes. He lurks on the fringes of the town, watching, narrating and applying his own brand of logic to the town’s goings on. He's a mute, but that does not seem to prevent him from narrating his own miserable story.

The rough, neglected, mostly confused, frequently filthy Euchrid eventually becomes convinced he is some sort of emissary from God. He has never known friendship or kindness, never been an equal of anyone, never been accepted and never addressed by name, save in his own sprawling inner monologue. He is not the only apparently Godly being in the town- the foundling Beth, a child of the town, is groomed by the Ukelites for sainthood. To begin with it’s quite easy to pity the unloved and unlovely Euchrid- beaten, ridiculed and scorned as he is. However, as the book goes on he does become quite a successful serial killer and animal torturer and mutilator, and so the reader’s sympathy kind of dries up. Though he is still fascinating, it’s no longer possible to feel any kind of empathy for him as he descends into a violent, gleeful madness.

And the Ass Saw the Angel is a searing, brutal slog of a novel that maps the gradual descent into insanity of its mute protagonist. The prose is vicious and overwrought; usually shocking, occasionally very funny. It jumps around between a first person phonetic Southern dialect of Euchrid, and an effusive, detail obsessed narratorial voice that fills in the gaps. I can see why many readers have bemoaned its lack of editing and view it as a self-indulgent, over inflated short story, but I found it weirdly compelling despite its bile, and enjoyed picking out the familiar lines that were either borrowed from the back catalogue made it into subsequent songs. Fans of Nick Cave’s music will be able to spot little crossovers between his 80s songs and his prose; the moths trying to “enter the bright eyes” of bulbs from Mercy Seat, the dead first born twin, drunk mother and rural, endless rain of Tupelo, themes and images that keep repeating- religion, morality, madness, responsibility, insanity…He’s such a brilliant little weirdo.

For a first time novelist, an Australian and a guy that was about 75% heroin in 1989, it’s a remarkable, striking addition to the Southern Gothic landscape. An intense, uncomfortable read that is drenched in heat, grime and sweat, excessive violence and rage- the landscape of the narrative is brilliantly composed and the characters that populate it are typical Cave creations- fire and brimstone preachers, garish prostitutes, gibbering hobos and inebriated, inbred hillfolk.

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