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The Girl Who Ate New York

By David Rose.

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HP Tinker, The Girl Who Ate New York (East London Press, 2016)

To a palate jaded by the offerings of the mainstream literary world, this book came as a tonic, a welcome reminder of the excitement literature can still offer when you come off the publishing highway.

John Ashbery described the late Lee Harwood as Britain’s best-kept secret; H.P. Tinker is another, even better-kept secret. His work has appeared regularly in the magazine Ambit, where I have read some of the stories; I have also read his first collection, The Swank Bisexual Wine Bar of Modernity (Social Disease Books, 2007). Lee Rourke devoted a chapter to Tinker in his A Brief History of Fables (Hesperus Press, 2011). But beyond a relatively small band of cognoscenti, he is largely unknown. So now is a good time to let others in on the secret. Because this is one of the wittiest, most allusive and elusive collections I have read in years. It’s frustratingly difficult — possibly impossible — to adequately convey its appeal for the benefit of the uninitiated. But I’ll try.

Firstly, the range of cultural reference is staggering, both high and low, but use of those references is so disarmingly funny that its import is, deliberately perhaps, subverted. Structurally, there are events but no plots here, except in the most basic, archetypal forms. The stories are usually narrated by a self-aware, non-ironic ingenue, often in a quest for love or erotic adventure, ideally both, in the shape of an elusive, fully ironic woman, typically a cultural herione of the present or recent past, pursued through an apocalyptic social landscape. Occasionally, the narrator is an interviewer, as in the brilliant ‘Nosferatu in Manhattan’. There are also a number of parodies of detective fiction. Parody, though, is the wrong word, as these are more elaborate celebrations of the genre, subverted by deadpan wit into existential enigmas similar to de Chirico’s paintings; intellectual culs-de-sac.

The immediate appeal of these stories lies at the level of the sentence — every sentence can be savoured for its shape and wit — but the effect, and importance, lies at the level not of the story but the collection. Any sentence, chosen at random, would exemplify that wit, but at the same time give an entirely false impression of unrelenting cultural clever-cleverness. Even a longer quotation runs the same risk, but the risk will have to be taken in order to make concrete my point. Here is the opening of ‘Excerpts from the Extraordinary Autobiography of Mister HPT’:

I was born on a mountaintop in Montana during an entirely unexpected flower festival. My mother was a blooming orchid, a dazzling drop of golden rain, a sizzling sunshine shower who worked in retail fashion. Raised in a brothel on the wrong side of the tracks, she found salvation as a part-time good time girl until she met my father, a Texan rustler only just re-released into the wider community. Soon wrangling Levi jeans for a living, father became a semi-professional metaphor for rural American life and flew us to England for narrative reasons…

Around March 1975 father became increasingly delusional.

He began dressing in ill-fitting maternity clothes and declared himself to be the long lost brother of Gore Vidal… Eventually he was imprisoned for smuggling imaginary cocaine to footballers and not long after an intruder broke into the family home and stole all of my mother’s affections. In buoyant mood, she left for Calais on the newly-invented hovercraft before throwing herself over the side just five minutes later. She left behind few clues why — only some laminated suicide notes and an erotic mural of Anne Sexton eating pizza…

You may respond to that; you may not. I wouldn’t like even an extract that long to function as a litmus test for the collection — ideally you should read the full story at least. Because I’m conscious that I have failed to explain even to myself why this book gives me so much pleasure. But the failure is itself a tribute to Tinker’s genius, which is, despite passing similarities to possible forebears (a postmodern Beachcomber? an eschatological Ivor Cutler?), ultimately sui generis. It’s an acquired taste, like single malt whiskey, but a taste worth acquiring for the pleasure it gives.

It’s also great for one-upmanship: along with the infinity of names you can drop from his work, you can add that of H.P. Tinker himself.

But it has importance beyond that: in a universe converted by the Theoreticians into a constellation of signs without wonder, how do we respond? Tinker’s response is to relax, consume as much of the cultural menu as possible, and convert the signs back into wonder at the gargantuan richness of it all. His conversion of high culture into an intellectual adventure playground makes concrete the argument that literature has no function beyond its existence; it is not a preparation for life, nor imaginative training for life, but a life in and for itself, with its own intrinsic and unique rewards. And Tinker reminds us, when we need it most, how bracing the rewards can be.

davidrose

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Rose was Fiction Editor of Main Street Journal. His first novel, Vault, was published by Salt; it was the subject of a 3:AM Magazine interview with Gavin James Bower and a later review by Paul Kavanagh. His new novel is Meridian.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 21st, 2016.