“It hadn’t taken him long to master the art of romance. He would see a girl he liked the look of, then stroll over and chat to her about whatever he thought she might be interested in chatting about before casually inviting her to drink some tepid snakebite or sweet white wine with him. Sitting beside her on a beach, a tree stump or a farm gate, he would impress her with tales of his unconventional lifestyle, and slowly inch closer as he recited streams of jokes he had memorised from the back pages of the Daily Star. If she seemed comfortable to have him so near that she could feel his breath on her face, he would lean into her, and if she leant back into him he would put one arm around her, and then the other, and he would kiss her, and because she was on holiday she would kiss him back in spite of his hair, and they would become a writhing, slurping Rodin.”
Dan Rhodes could tell you a thing or two about love. From the masterful short, short stories of Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories to the wonderful novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental Journey, love is found, love is lost and sometimes it is not found at all. Rhodes is sure to break a few hearts with his latest offering, Gold, ‘eagerly anticipated’ an understatement for his first novel proper since Timoleon Vieta, though there was The Little White Car in the interim under the nom de plume Danuta de Rhodes.
Described by Rhodes in this very magazine as his “pub book”, Gold is indeed just that. Starting like the opening of a joke — “Tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw were standing at the bar of The Anchor. ‘You know what we would be doing right now if we were alligators?” — and delivering a deadly punch-line at the end, Gold is set in-and-around a Pembrokeshire imbibing emporium, where Miyuki Woodward has holidayed for the past eight years; except from reading, enjoying “two weeks of nothing much at all” to keep her relationship fresh and from becoming “one of those couples who couldn’t function without one another”.
Back again for more of the same (though the usual two weeks are cut short when Miyuki goes home early), she “was drinking what she always drank, and sitting where she always sat…wearing the same brown jumper and walking boots she had habitually worn to the pub the year before, and although her jeans were technically different from last year’s they were from the same shop, they were exactly the same shade of blue, and they were just as splattered with multi-coloured spots of paint. Her hair was more or less the same shortish style as it had been for years, and it was pulled back from her face with a black band that she couldn’t remember having bought in the intervening months, and even though she was always resolving to mend her ways, her nails were still bitten down to the quick.”
Renowned for his frisky characters, Rhodes has created yet another doosy in Miyuki: a half-Welsh, half-Japanese painter-decorator in a happy relationship with another woman, her “old obsessions had been starved of oxygen and had withered into insignificance” and equally so Grindl’s favourite country songs “no longer stabbed white hot skewers into her heart and she even found herself feeling sorry for the singers instead of feeling sorry for herself.”
“As Japanese as laverbread” (a Welsh delicacy made from seaweed), Miyuki’s “long-standing and carefully cultivated indifference towards the country had been replaced by a genuine moderate interest, so when people asked her questions about things to do with Japan she no longer expended energy being affronted, but instead battered them with basic historical, cultural and geographical information,” knowledge handy for The Anchor’s weekly pub quiz, then.
Rhodes’ portrait of a pub is both affectionate and richly humorous — the same exchanges from the regulars “word for word, for years” and the clichés “thudding awkwardly around the quiet bar” above the hum of the fridge and under the watchful gaze of a stuffed pike, and some good jokes too: “Their glasses were almost empty. ‘Your round, Mr Puw,’ said short Mr Hughes. Mr Puw patted his belly, and said, ‘I might have filled out a bit over the years, but there’s no need to be personal.'”
While you can almost taste the pork scratchings, you can certainly taste the real ale:
“The Anchor had two glass-panelled front doors, one engraved with the words LOUNGE BAR and the other with the words PUBLIC BAR, but the days of different prices and different service had gone a long time ago, and the dividing wall had been taken out in the Seventies. Now it was just the same pub all the way through, but each side was still referred to by its old name, and short Mr Hughes, tall Mr Hughes and Mr Puw always came in through the LOUNGE BAR door and stayed on that side of the pub, and Septic Barry and the Children from Previous Relationships always came in through the public bar door and stayed on that side of the pub.”
[Dan Rhodes at 3:AM’s Xmas bash 2003]
High on atmosphere, short on drama, not much happens in Gold, aside from Miyuki Woodward spray-painting the top of a rock with gold paint. In fact, at one point I wondered if Dan Rhodes had gone, to use an beer analogy, a bit flat. Septic Barry gets his girl, his band pledge to perform their first gig and Tall Mr Hughes goes on a journey of self-discovery. Christ, it’s almost happy. I was unnecessarily worried, though. “Nobody’s happier on their own. They might tell people they are, and they might even tell themselves they are, but they aren’t. Not really.” Dan Rhodes was once described as a man who “comes towards you with a bunch of flowers in one hand and a stiletto in the other,” and that still stands. Throughout Gold Miyuki has been counting her sneezes, with “nobody there to say bless you.” Bad enough in a tear-jerking kind of way, but Rhodes’ wounding blow in the book’s final pages will have even the hardest of hearts bursting.
Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika and is Comics Co-Editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 4th, 2007.