The Scottish author Martin Millar has been writing and publishing books in the UK for over two decades. As far as I can tell, his work wasn’t published in the US until only few years ago when the indie publisher Soft Skull began to roll out Millar’s novels. I enjoyed his excellent Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me (my review), which was infinitely better than I would have thought. Since Suzy, Zep & Me, I’ve been clamoring for more Millar. I recently picked up two more of his books and read them both back-to-back in an almost uninterrupted reading jag. The two books are: Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation and Lux the Poet.
The novels have their similarities that are readily apparent when read together. Both are set in Brixton among poor young people on the dole awaiting their “giro.” Seedy characters navigate a world of drugs and desperation that is hilarious and a little sad. Both jump from character to character in quick “edits” between frantic story lines that will ultimately intersect. Both seem related to the caper films of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch). In fact, I’d be shocked – shocked! – to learn that Ritchie is not a huge long-time fan of Millar. The books also provide clandestine and wry social commentary.
For all their similarities, the novels are, in fact, very different. I’ll tackle Millar’s first novel today and continue with Lux the Poet tomorrow.
Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation
Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation was originally published in 1987. The novel neatly captures the paranoia and desperation of the Reagan/Thatcher era. Alby is a small-time drug dealer (sulphate is apparently a kind of amphetamine) and comic book collector squatting in various Brixton hovels. He feels generally unwell and looks much older than he is. And he is completely paranoid.
Alby concocts a purification program of fasting and abstaining from milk products and suddenly feels much better than he has in years (but he is still very paranoid). He writes about his program in an alternative paper under the name Alby Starvation and the regimen sweeps Britain. This does not go over well with the Milk Marketing Board.
The cast of characters that get swept up in Alby’s include: a beautiful assassin hired by the Milk Marketing Board to kill Alby, a Chinese mob kingpin, a hapless grocer, a zen master video game champion, a professor after an ancient relic that may have magical powers, a local nurse, and Alby’s lowlife friends and associates. Whew. There’s a lot going on, and Millar’s constant shift in story lines propels the novel effortlessly along.
Alby, of course, is largely oblivious to what is transpiring around him:
I don’t understand this development in the proceedings. Why is this person pointing a gun at me? Did I do something wrong in bed? Surely it couldn’t have been that unpleasant for her. Perhaps she wants her army trousers back, well she only has to ask.
As the story lines inevitably converge on Alby, it seems that he was right to be paranoid all along.
Millar takes gleeful potshots at government bureaucracy and corporate culture along the way. The conspiracies of the police and medical establishments and their relationship to the lowlifes of Brixton are hilarious because they have at their hearts the ring of truth. In the light of recent corporate greed and wrong-doing, Millar’s imagined machinations of the business elite are so crazy that they may not be too far from the mark. There is some excellent satire in Alby’s crazed story.
Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation is good fun and a great read. I’m thrilled that his subversive stories are finally making their way to the US. Check back tomorrow for Part 2, a review of Millar’s Lux the Poet.