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I'm Sorry Now
on 21 August 2006
I'm a long-time fan of Howard Jacobson's and have enjoyed his last four novels: No More Mister Nice Guy, The Mighty Walzer, Who's Sorry Now? and The Making of Henry. So when Kalooki Nights was published and seemed to achieve a sort of critical consensus in the papers (see the reviews extracted above, as well as A.C. Grayling's extraordinary eulogy in The Times: "it is, to state plainly, a work of genius"), I couldn't wait to read it. Then it was longlisted for the Booker Prize last week, and quickly was tipped for the shortlist.
So it gives me no pleasure at all to say that I have given up on Kalooki Nights at about the one-third mark (page 150). Even by Jacobson's discursive, rambling standards it really is toweringly random and in the end the critic I most agreed with is Michael Moorcock who said "Jacobson is a great anecdotalist but a lousy storyteller." Now anyone who reads Jacobson knows that the plot is not the point: but even so. There is less a story than an exploration around a story: specifically, the narrator Maxie Glickman trying to discover why his childhood friend Manny Washinsky gassed both his own parents in their bed. The cultural background, if you hadn't guessed by the names, is Jewish, or Jewish squared: as Jacobson himself said, "it's the most Jewish novel ever written by anyone anywhere." This will be familiar to anyone who's read any of Jacobson's other novels (particularly the semi-autobiographical coming of age story The Mighty Walzer), and here we have the added colour of the big Jewish storyline of the 20th century - the Holocaust.
Sadly for me Jacobson's black humour and tangential style didn't work here the way it has in his other books, and I'm afraid I found Kalooki Nights tiresome almost from the outset: which can't be a good sign. Jacobson is still excellent on families, and still even better on capturing on the page the erotic allure of an older woman, but the book never really took off for me. His previous novel, The Making of Henry, had a terrific 30-page opening scene which gave the reader enough momentum to push through the occasional longueurs afterwards, but Kalooki Nights begins as it goes on: in bits, back and forward, here and there, never picking up speed. Can a book be simultaneously very well written and extremely dull? Well, the evidence of Joyce, Proust, Beckett and Bellow is that yes it can, and indeed can go on to be considered a classic too. So good luck to Jacobson with that: perhaps it's more Nobel (ie difficult and unrewarding) than Booker.
If Kalooki Nights gets onto the Booker shortlist then (a) it can only be as a lifetime-achievement type prize, a little like Ian McEwan's win for the middling Amsterdam, and (b) a lot of people who buy it as their first Jacobson will be put off him for good. Better to begin with No More Mister Nice Guy (a brilliantly funny sex comedy) or Who's Sorry Now? (which was longlisted for the Booker in 2002, should have got further, and didn't).