For the most part this is a slight and whimsical tale, although by the end it has gone to some oddly dark places. To be honest, I think `whimsical' and `dark' are a literary oil and water, they really don't mix well together. So, despite having some high points of amusement, `The Ballad of Peckham Rye' has an unevenness of tone which is quite disconcerting.
It centres on Dougal Douglas, a young Scot hired in a nebulous personnel role for a Peckham company. Bracingly optimistic, he makes it his business to integrate himself into the lives of those around him. Undoubtedly he's a fun character, one whose unpredictability charms and disturbs those he meets, but I'm not sure Spark clearly works out what's at the centre of him. Is he a free spirit there to shake up the end of the Fifties, or merely a workshy conman with a great deal of charisma? Quite at lot is made by the character himself of the horns he had removed from his head when he was a child, but I'm not sure it really leads anywhere. If he is a devil, then he's definitely a mild and fairly ineffective one.
Part of the problem comes from how dated the book feels now. Certainly its portrayal of Peckham (a district of London not that far from where I live) feels a world away from the area today. That's fine though, as locales change over time and Dickens' London not being with us doesn't make his books any less brilliant. But more disturbing for the modern reader, is that a lot of Dougal's behaviour doesn't seem all that unconventional to modern eyes. Okay, his views on work would still be frowned upon, but his crying or his dancing unconventionally or even his banter, would not furrow many brows today. In a way he reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly in `A Confederacy of Dunces' (a book written at much the same time, though published a lot later). He's another outsider who proclaims his genius, but one who is lot less socially integrated than Dougal and so still appears a strange and unique character. Dougal Douglas, I'm afraid, in 2011, has lost a lot of his USP.
The last third of the book turns oddly threatening, with forays into gangs of hooligans, blackmail and murder. After all that's gone before it's a jarring switch in tone. Maybe Spark is suggesting that such an unconventional force introduced into society, will only lead to crime and tragedy. Yes, the Dougal ride is fun, but look where it ends up. In which case it's not a particularly uplifting message, so I can only be glad that we now live in a world where originality and free thinking are more welcome.
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