“You’re born, you take shit, get out in the world, take shit, you climb higher, take less shit.  The higher you climb, the less shit you take, till one day you get up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like.  Welcome to the layer cake, son.”–Eddie Ryder, “Layer Cake,” by J.J. Connolly


If J.J. Connolly’s apt description of the underground, and the London underground, in specific, is to hold, which it surely should, as it was as good a piece of “drug fiction” as has come our way in some time, then he and the movie called Layer Cake, also based on his book, and directed and produced by Matthew Vaughn (husband of Claudia Schiffer–good score!), deserve a lot more credit than they have gotten.

Let’s keep this in perspective though, if we can.  Layer Cake is a great novel, if the subject matter is your thing, but it’s by no means a great novel.  It’s drug store fiction and cookie cutter-esque, even if the premise is innovative to some degree.  We’ll not hold that against Mr. Connolly, who for all intents and purposes, was probably not trying to write the next War and Peace or Grendel,  by John Gardner, though Gardner’s classic work and Connolly’s modern crime story have one thing they share: a first person narrator.  Make no mistake.  There is a huge difference between the two.  Grendel is a beast who preys upon an early medieval city, and hearing the way that beast views the world, the hipocrisy of the feudal system, and the ridiculous superstitions people held at the time, was very moving, and deftly accomplished.  Connolly’s narrator, on the other hand, is someone we really never get to know too well, especially in name.  He goes the whole book and movie without divulging who he is, and with people calling him ‘mate’ and ‘kid’, conveniently, all the while.  The advanced word on Connolly’s sequel to Layer Cake, Viva la Madness, is that Connolly continues this gimmick, still referring to his narrator as [xxxx] when he is forced to refer to him, and otherwise, steadily avoids it.

Gardner wrote several books on how to write books, such as The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, and is firm on the notion that first person narration is garbage for a novel, and that only the greatest talents who have very innovative first person narration concepts, like, say through the eyes of a beast that isn’t human, or in a short story, can pull it off.  The literary community agrees with Gardner, who was one of the best writers and teachers at the University level that America has known.  First person narration is usually reserved for those who lack the patience to pick up the subtlety and nuance of a third person, or mixed narrative.  In short, the literary community is talking about 95% of the fiction purchasing public–The Devil Wears Prada crowd, and such similar consumers.  Ironic that Gardner defies his own rule, but he does have a national book award for it, and much critical acclaim to show, and not just a blurb from The Miami Herald.


That’s not to say Layer Cake should not be celebrated, nor is it to suggest that Viva la Madness won’t be worth reading, as I for one, have been greatly anticipating it for some time.  But for how long can Connolly keep to his gimmick?  And could he write a serious novel with the same degree of success?  These are questions I often grapple with, since I write myself, and do so in the third person, as I am not writing drug store fiction.  We may share some subject material, but 7400 is a literary work, first and foremost, and funny as hell–and since I don’t have John Gardner’s talent, I stick by his rules.  Most people write what they know, and they think it’s good practice.  What is really good practice is to write the kind of book you would like to read, and to do it in as thoughtful and refined a way as possible.

In Layer Cake, the novel, our narrator, [xxxx], does something starkly out of character, near the end of the book, and it skewes the entire work.  His narrator kills an innocent person, and that destroys his likability, where as his other bad deeds could be justified.  Perhaps this could have been better pulled off if Connolly developed his character better, and better foreshadowed it.  But again, I feel he is short on literary talent, and does little to highlight the human condition.  Or maybe I misread.  But I don’t think so.  Great books like the Exorcist and Godfather made for great movies, but in my estimation, the books were better.  And they were literary accomplishments to boot.  As third person narrations, Puzo’s and William Peter Blady’s works will stand up as classics, and have, while Layer Cake the novel, reeks of the contemporary.

But to Connolly’s credit, not being literary doesn’t mean he isn’t a talent.  He did write the screenplay for Layer Cake and it was a better movie than book.  Also, he fixed the part I couldn’t stand from the novel, making [xxxx] consistently sympathetic throughout, but I suspect a smart guy like Vaughn who has worked on several notable movies, may have had some input there.  If anyone has any problem with any of this, please comment.  I am fascinated by the topic enough to write an essay on someone else’s book, and any new light that could be shed on it would be a treasure for me.

In receiving advanced word on Viva la Madness, I have mixed feelings.  For one, I enjoyed greatly Connolly’s take on the London underground, as I am a student of the underground and have always been fascinated by New York’s.  Wasn’t so excited to hear that [xxxx] is now a kingpin in the Caribbean, and that at best, 1-2 other characters from a dynamite roster in Layer Cake are reprising their roles.

If I were to guess who would be back, I’d put my money on Mr. Mortimer, [xxxx’s] muscle, and connect to the Cocaine he peddled, which came by way of Jamaica.  And I am hoping that Eddie Ryder/Eddie Temple and Gene also figure in, though reports make it seem unlikely.

We shall see in time.  As far as the blog has been going, I’m feeling quite at home here.  To quote Dr. Seuss, “it’s just the right spot for my wonderful plans,” Said young Morris McGurk, “…if I clean up the cans.”

And since I am happy with the turn out, here are the ingredients to my recovery shake, as promised yesterday:

Ice cubes (many), 1% milk, a tablespoon of peanut butter (organic), 3 strawberries (organic), 1 whole banana (Russian store), a teaspoon of flax seed oil, a teaspoon of creatine, and 19 grams of designer vanilla whey protein.

Bang! (That’s an homage to the new episode of Tim airing tonight on HBO.  Don’t worry.  I can come up with original material, I promise!)