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When Superman first appeared, he didn’t have X-ray vision or all the neat superpowers. In fact, he couldn’t even fly. But y’know what power he did have? He was bulletproof. Unable to be shot. And that’s why Superman was created: He’s not some American Messiah or some modern version of Moses or Jesus or whoever else historians like to trot out – Superman is the result of a meek little Clark Kent named Jerry Siegel wishing and praying and aching for his murdered father to be bulletproof so he doesn’t have to be alone.

Trailers designed to promote books are an interesting phenomenon. When I first saw one for Brad Meltzer’s The Book of Lies, which features among other Joss Whedon and Christopher Hitchens, I was impressed with the audaciousness of the marketing. It summarises the plot of the book – what if the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and that of the father of Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman, were somehow linked across a divide of millennia – but also plays off the faddishness of conspiracy fiction in the wake of Dan Brown’s success. What’s more the trailer itself trades in nods and winks at comic book fans. As if to suggest that this book is a self-aware parody of The Da Vinci Code, but ironically replacing high art with comic books..

Cal works with a homeless charity, cruising the streets of Miami in a van, looking for folks living on the streets. His partner Roosevelt is a defrocked preacher who insists that he needs to get himself some kind of a life outside of his work. Cal’s a man with a painful past though, one he tries to bury by doing good deeds and living humbly. As a former customs officer drummed out for misconduct he already has plenty to atone for. One night on their rounds the pair find a mugging victim with a gunshot wound in a park. Cal instantly recognizes the man as his father, who vanished from his life after he was sent to jail for the accidental killing of his wife. His past has caught up with him with a vengeance.

While his father Lloyd is relieved to see Cal, he also appears to be running scared. His story of a vicious mugging does not seem too plausible. Pulling in some favours from a friend in the force, Cal discovers not only is his father involved in a plot to smuggle a secret item into the country, the bullet he was shot with came from the same gun that was used to murder Mitchell Siegel in 1932.

Meanwhile an assassin with complicated father issues of his own named Ellis is on Lloyd’s trail. He believes Cal’s father is in possession, or knows the whereabouts of, an artefact known as the Book of Lies. Believed to reveal the weapon used by the Biblical Cain in murdering his brother, Ellis’ organisation has been searching for it for centuries. They are willing to kill anyone in their path, after all God is on their side. The last person rumoured to have owned the artefact was Mitchell Siegel. Could Jerry Siegel have witnessed his own father’s death and hidden the location of the Book of Lies in a Superman comic?

As this is a novel about a McGuffin its pages are filled with ominous definite articles. The Book of Lies, The Map, The Prophet. I found myself cursing under my breath towards the end What Is The Point? Is this a parody of Brown, or an excoriation of the poor treatment of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by their publishers? It is interesting to note that Meltzer himself has written for DC Comics, including the best-selling miniseries Identity Crisis, which featured the murder and retroactive rape of the much loved Sue Dibny character. It was not very good.

Neither is this novel. Most chapters are no more than two or three pages. The plot feels like Bible and comic book history trivia strung together haphazardly. Characters dump exposition on the page to move the action along. Everyone has parental issues of one kind or another. Someone once said all American fiction is about fathers and sons. This book takes that adage a little too literally.

While I like the idea of the holiest relic in Western culture being a comic book, it doesn’t justify this dull, plodding narrative. I closed this book with a sigh of relief.

I had no idea, however, that it was a turning point in my career. You realize these things only later and I am a bit impatient with memoirists who claim to have foreseen their destiny. I have never been able to foresee very far beyond tomorrow. Even when I lay a long plan, it is never in the expectation that I will live to see it fulfilled.

Clive James’ talk shows and documentaries were as important a part of my childhood as TRON and the Queen soundtrack to Flash Gordon. My dad was a big fan and he had the remote. In earlier years, he simply commanded authority over the television channels by virtue of being the man of the house. Technology simplifies things.

North Face of Soho takes off from where James’ previous volume ended, with marriage behind him and the slow progress from Cambridge Footlights to a writing career begun. Wisely the focus of the biography is the early stages of a professional career, with little time for kiss and tell revelations. The confessional tone is left intact though, with indiscretions both alcoholic and narcotic the cause of much of his suffering. James’ rueful style of self-reflection is devoid of false modesty and he makes it clear that any success he’s enjoyed has been due to extraordinary luck in the people he has met on the way up.

There’s also name dropping aplenty, with various journalistic mentors providing opportunities to hobnob with celebrities and stars of the London literary scene. James’ brief tenure with the underground magazine Oz is briefly touched on, which I only just recently heard about for the first time in an essay by Alan Moore featured in Dodgem Logic. There’s his failed attempt at a biography of Louis MacNeice; the conclusion of his acting career and an astonishingly wrong-headed approach to negotiations with Equity; his first forays into criticism, moving from the anonymity of TLS, to radio and finally television, his true home; and lunching with the young literary turks of 1970’s London, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens.

Peppered throughout are James’ own thoughts on criticism, writing and celebrity. He discusses his media profile as a member of the Australian wave that washed up in London, mentioning Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. He even makes mention of how as his reputation as a critic grew, his name became shorthand for any particularly apt, or cutting description of a celebrity. In that regard his infamous quip on Arnold Schwarznegger a brown condom filled with walnuts’, manages to conjure up the perfect image, while also managing to be unusually prescient as to the sexual misadventures of the Governator.

I was surprised with how difficult I found reading this book. I’ve read James’ television criticism in the past and found it still very amusing. He had me fascinated to find out who killed JR! Part of the problem for me, one that James’ own mentors describe during his apprenticeship, is that he tries to fit too much into every sentence. It’s especially ironic that he reveres George Orwell so much, as he was a key exponent of the value of short, descriptive sentences. What’s more reading the book does feel like a deluge of cameos and asides on the styles of the time. There are wonderful thumbnail descriptions of Martin Amis, Ian McKellen and The Sex Pistols, but they are lost, adrift in the sea of James’ endless reminiscences. How can someone be so wonderfully knowledgeable and verbose, while at the same time boring? Reading the book felt like being stuck in that lift with Stephen Fry.

However, for me there was one personal high point, when James talks about Tony Wilson, acknowledging his fellow intellectual manqué who chose regional television programming over academic success. This book was published only a year before Wilson himself died and here he is credited with his endless efforts to bring culture to Manchester, singing its praises from the roof-tops.  

Tony Wilson was brilliant. Unfortunately there was no other word for him.

In two pithy phrases Clive James sums up the appeal of Tony Wilson, while also alluding to the root cause of his failure. And that manages to sum up the author himself – brilliant, but in short bursts.

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