Body Charge Hardcover – 6 Jul 1972
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Body Charge is the fifth novel by Hunter Davies. After writing Body Charge Davies switched to writing non-fiction, the most known of his titles probably being The Beatles: The Authorised Biography (1968). In his revealing and frequently self-deprecating Introduction to the new Valancourt edition Davies explains about writing fiction: "I was always starting off in great style, great energy and excitement, laughing at my own jokes, and then about halfway I would stop and think, hmm, plot, I'll have to think of a plot, quick, what can I do, where can I get a plot from?"
That short description pretty accurately sums up Body Charge. Davies gives readers a novel that appears to be a combination of stream of consciousness writing aka the Beat Generation writing of Jack Kerouac with the scriptless, ad-lib filmmaking of Andy Warhol in the late 1960s and early 1970s (e.g. Flesh, Trash, Heat, etc). It isn't until half-way through Body Charge when Frank watches police haul a dead body out of a lake that the novel takes on anything resembling a novel with a plot, but even then the story, as narrated by Frank, is random and as far from a straight, plot-driven murder mystery as Dr. Seuss is from Dashiell Hammett.
It is hard telling what is more entertaining in Body Charge: the off-beat cast of characters all of whom Frank knows and hangs out with or the narrator's quips and sarcastic (but often dead-on) descriptions of them with some very witty dialogue. Shaggy is a football player who makes it to the big time with an ego to match and is constantly being nagged by the press for comments on just about everything. However, Frank explains, "Not that you expect footballers to be able to write, or talk, or read, or listen. From the age of ten, they've known that they were going to be become professional footballers and that part of their being has been hyperdeveloped, as if under a glasshouse, while the rest of them has been completely ignored." Although married, Zak has adventures with other men on the side--often disappearing to the Heath at night for anonymous sex. Another friend of Frank's, Joff, is also a closet case. Working for the BBC, Joff is very careful to keep his sexual identity a secret--something quite difficult to do when he has an ex-wife causing problems and a lover, Eddie, who wants a monogamous relationship while Joff is being forced into a liaison with a woman, Caroline, to maintain his image. Eddie has further problems in that he must maintain an appropriate image or risk the loss of custody of his eleven-year-old son. As a part of this trippy group of characters, Frank fits right in. Conflicted about his sexuality, afraid to have any on-going sexual relations with a man because he doesn't want to admit to being gay and incapable of performing with a woman, Frank lives life vicariously through his friends from the safety of his Gran's house, having hot cocoa with her before bedtime.
There are also numerous references to popular culture of the times thrown into Body Charge, some of which might be lost on younger readers. The model Twiggy gets a mention as does Aramis, a cologne once quite popular with (and sometimes utilized as a way of recognizing or at least stereotyping) gay men. There are also references to the Vietnam War. Davies' rambling story-telling style continues even after the murder, the identification of the victim, and even when Frank gets repeatedly grilled and watched by the police, Frank having driven the murder victim in his mini-cab shortly before the man is killed. Frank's luck also has him blundering into the worst situations at the worst times in the worst of places--none of which is an asset to him.
It is only in the latter portions of Body Charge that readers will note a distinct change in tone. The often mocking voice of the narrator starts to take on a harder edge as Frank grows weary and angry with a "phoney policeman" and "Mr Innocent and Co" who are interested in the murder "only for the nasty gossip and innuendoes they could get out of it." Others worry most about themselves and getting caught up in the investigation or their reputation smudged. A second murder victim leads to Davies telling a much more linear story with violence replacing sarcasm and both Frank and, one must assume, the author, taking a much more serious stance regarding human rights and how illogical hatred and intolerance can lead to viciousness and cruel, unnecessary bloodshed.
Body Charge is a most unusual novel. Davies proves to be skilled enough as a writer of fiction to hold one's interest throughout and much of the fascination with the tale resides within the author's eccentric style of story-telling. By the novel's conclusion, there are no real heroes among the known characters, but there is hope for a better life for at least one of them--and that is at least saying something. Body Charge is an excellent choice for the reader looking for a change of pace from the ordinary.