Curvy Lovebox – Crumple Zone – Hooky Gear
Nick Barlay’s first novel, drug-fuelled and in invented argot, invites comparison with Irvine Welsh; but in some ways, a closer spiritual antecedent might be Martin Amis. Barlay’s London, too, is more a state of mind than a real place, and there’s a brutal poetry in the dialogue of his low-lifers. But whereas Amis, slumming it, showed naked contempt for his characters, Barlay evinces a genuine, uncynical affection…. There’s more than enough here to mark out Barlay as a writer of great talent.
The Evening Standard
With his debut novel Curvy Lovebox, (Barlay) could do for Kilburn what Irvine Welsh did for Edinburgh
A chemical-fuelled trip through the wrong side of the city.
Barrie Keeffe, writer of The Long Good Friday
Nick Barlay’s first novel is a cracker. The action bristles with a laid back wit that is hard to resist.
Even traffic directions are charged with hyper-energy.
I don’t know anyone who speaks like this.
Guardian Pick of the week – Saturday November 18, 2000
Nicholas Lezard on Nick Barlay’s fictional voice of the street in Crumple Zone
When publishers tout a new voice from the streets, a narrative that accurately reflects contemporary urban life as lived by people who wear trainers and puffy jackets, the results are almost always depressing. Either the details of the lives described are manifestly false, or the writing sucks. This is hardly anyone’s fault, as living life on the edge and honing one’s prose style are, in this country at least, goals at odds with each other. So it was very nice to pick this up and find a writer who is not only in command of his technique but seems to be have his finger on the city’s pulse.
The story is about Cee Harper, a part-time teacher who lives in Trellick Towers, that modernist slab of a tower block at the top end of Notting Hill which so beguiles some of the middle class (but which is convincingly portrayed in this novel as a toilet). She comes back to find her flat broken into and trashed; which, as it is 30 floors up, seems to indicate an inside job, and besides, there is a hole under the floorboards that she did not know was there. Now it seems to be axiomatic that, unless the author is Tony Parsons, Nick Hornby or an unmarried woman worried about her weight, the contemporary, not-overly-literary urban novel has to contain some kind of criminal element to keep itself going, and this is no exception; but this would appear to be more about having one’s own fears addressed than a nasty little fantasy excursion into a semi-pornographic tableau of baseball bats and crack cocaine. All right, this novel does feature those things, but it also features what goes through the mind of a savvy but internally anxious teacher when she is confronted by four of her hardest, most routinely disrespectful pupils on her way back home. And that is what makes this novel: its creation of Cee Harper’s voice, the monologue of an intelligent, alert and thoughtful person to whom bad things start happening.
There’s another interesting thing Barlay does, or does not do: and that is tell you what his characters look like. In other words, while a detail might slip out here and there, he makes you work a bit before you twig which characters are black. This is not so much colour-blindness as a discreet aversion of the head; and one of the reasons you might do that would be to hear better. You don’t have to be a genius to work out what race Georgio Georgianou, the novel’s hard man, would describe himself as; but his speech – as is almost everyone’s in the novel – is very much supercharged Ali G. Most dialogue closes with the word “innit” or “y’na mean”, which is how “you know what I mean” comes out most of the time these days.
So what? Well, as Empson said, one of the things, or should I say tings, literature does is to give us sympathetic access to systems of value and belief that are not our own; or, if you prefer, not to look in a mirror but out of the window. I can’t completely vouch for Barlay’s veracity – but his ear certainly does sound trustworthy. And there are some good jokes here too, such as the one about baklava.
Crumple Zone, Saturday Times, 25 November 2000
Cee Harper, a struggling inner-city teacher, finds herself drawn into dark and dangerous waters when she begins to search for her musician brother who has mysteriously disappeared. That is pretty much the entire plot, but Barlay’s evocation of the grimy end of Notting Hill, West London, is wonderfully written, with a convincing cast of characters, from the villainous to the inane. Dominated by the brooding figure of the absent sibling this is a low-key treat.
Crumple Zone, Time Out, 3 May 2000
Nick Barlay is fine chronicler of London’s grittier sub-cultures. In Curvy Lovebox, his first novel, he demonstrated a mastery of the anthropology of west London massives and Crumple Zone is another banquet of choice cuts from the dark urban underbelly.
A great dollop of vicarious tourism to savour without risking anything worse than the odd callus from compulsive page-turning.
Sunday Independent, 3 December 2000, Crumple Zone
It’s full of colourful characters and the dialogue is fantastically rich…Barlay’s ear for slang and talent for getting it on the page is, like, the wickedest. Y’na mean?
Maxim, July 2000, Crumple Zone
Fresh, insightful, with truly interesting characters and some of the best dialogue this side of Elmore Leonard.
Sunday Express 18 June 2000, Crumple Zone
I was hooked… A rare treat: intelligent, funny and written by one of the few guys around who can do everyday dialogue convincingly.
Hooky Gear, Guardian, 6 April 2013
2003 Ian Jack Granta editor, 1995-2007
“I think no one will need persuading that this is a literary novel,” Hilary Mantel wrote to me by email in the summer of 2002. “It’s both funny and melancholy … ultimately thought-provoking. The language is vital, inventive, and this vitality and inventiveness is itself a source of humour. The main character is complex, and he evolves; he has a hinterland. You can feel how trapped he is, how few choices he has in life after he has made the first wrong choices. Also, I feel this writer has thought about the country we live in and how it got to be the way it is. I don’t get this feeling from a lot of the more portentous novels that are around.”
The novel in question was Nick Barlay’s Hooky Gear, which is set among the criminal life of Haringey. The other judges liked it, too, and Barlay looked certain to feature among the Best of Young British Novelists for 2003. Then at the last moment we discovered he was older than 40 and therefore ineligible – his publishers had submitted him by mistake.
Hooky Gear, Time Out, 27 June 2001
Barlay recreates the inner city’s cold, closed world of deprivation, crime, drugs and violence with an expertise which recalls Chandler’s expeditions to the seedier side of Hollywood. There’s black humour on every page, finely crafted in the cynical patois of a hustler desperately trying to get out of touch with his inner loser. Highly recommended.
Hooky Gear, Guardian, Saturday May 5, 2001
Alex Clark gets herself set for a contract killing with Hooky Gear by Nick Barlay
As exercises in noir urban thrillers pile up around us, perhaps the most rigorous challenge for practitioners of this proliferating, baggy genre is to provide their work with a protective coating – to arm it against cliché, pastiche, self-parody and the subtle lure of bathos. Otherwise, what do you get? Moody cat-and-mouse exchanges between cons and police, rain-sodden council estates, endless dull accounts of duller drug deals enlivened by gaudy splashes of comic-book violence. In other words, a ready-made landscape that soon becomes as cosy and trite as any village green or suburban semi.
For Nick Barlay, whose “loose people of a loose trilogy” make their final appearance in Hooky Gear , one senses that the fear of falling into cliché is a major motivation. Rarely does one read writing so inventive, yet so tensed against habituation; so exuberant, but so obsessed with the business of conveying depression, hopelessness and failure.
As this trilogy has progressed, one has been aware of Barlay’s talent both enlarging and relaxing, and with his finale, the riskiest of all three in terms of its style, one sees a writer really coming into his own. “Look at the futality [sic] of your situation,” a mate urges J, the novel’s dubious hero, and that about sums up what the reader is forced to do throughout. From the moment J and his accomplice Duane are interrupted in the middle of a burglary on the Haringey Ladder, we’re aware that things are not going well on the “High Road to the Big Coin”. By the time J has been turned over to the police by his wife Monica, abandoned by Uncle, the shadowy Mr Big of the piece, and spent nine months in Wormwood Scrubs, we’ve cottoned on to the fact that they’re going to get worse; and when a newly freed J begins to mount his convoluted revenge on all his betrayers, we realise that “worse” might be very bad indeed.
What elevates Barlay from the crowds of undistinguished caper-writers is an extraordinary facility for creating and sustaining individual voices; in Crumple Zone for realising the edgy anxieties of teacher Cee Harper, and here for conveying the swaggering anecdotage and the blunted intelligence of J. “Understand I got a wife an kids an in a way a whole empire and I’m a king an hittin 30 years,” he tells us. “But sometime a king must prove all over how he got to be a king.” So J is delivered to us a self-mythologising petty criminal, a garrulous domestic imperialist. The obvious fact is that J isn’t a king – nor even a prince in Uncle’s bloodthirsty, oblique kingdom. He’s a pawn, albeit a pawn with a nice sense of interior décor, the hooky gear of the title: “My antiques – hooky; carpet – hooky; domestic appliances – hooky; toys an childrenwear – hooky; duvets an general beddin – hooky. Etc. etc. etc. an so forth. Well I got connections an that’s how it is wha can I say? You dont need no intelligence to act.” With an entire narrative delivered in this unpunctuated, hardcore demotic, it takes great skill to ensure that it never becomes gimmicky or irritating. Conversely, its energy requires of the reader an immense concentration, an alertness to the gaps between what appears to be being said and what is actually going on, and a pleasurable surrender to an unexpected form of articulacy. With its broken-down sentences, free-flowing dialogue and apparent formlessness, this is a brilliantly literary novel, utterly absorbed by the connections between experience and expression, and between language and morality. As the tale trundles on to its downbeat ending, via crosses and double-crosses at Tilbury Docks, we are left in little doubt as to the unrecuperable sadnesses of J’s life, standing in the tattered ruins of his existence… we could have an entire trilogy about him.
The Sunday Times, 25 November 2001
Picks of 2001… And Have You Read…
Of the vast number of novels published each year, only a few can hope to come to the attention of literary prizes or attract all but cursory newspaper coverage. As a consequence some gems are missed, among them Nick Barlay’s extraordinary novel Hooky Gear (Sceptre £7.99), the third in the author’s loose trilogy of low-gear urban living. Barlay narrates the story of J, a petty criminal based on the bottom rung of the criminal ladder, in an insanely inventive and driven demotic that knocks spots off other gangster wannabes.
Hooky Gear, Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2001
A man with a grasp of the modern world…is J, the burglar hero of Nick Barlay’s Hooky Gear: ‘Ceilin with texture is a weed smokers best friend (sic).’
But J has other things on his mind. Released after nine months in Wormwood Scrubs for a botched burglary, he is determined to find out why his wife, his Fagin-esque boss and now most of his friends have either betrayed or deserted him.
The various ins and outs of the chase are not so well plotted, but as soon as you get past every inversion of grammar, Barlay’s controlled and energetic demotic fixes you to the page and drives the novel to its properly inconclusive conclusion. And it is not just the language that sets this above all other ‘Geezer Chic’ writing; it is the superbly bitter-sweet desperation of J as he faces up to the ‘futality’ of his situation… J is just clever enough to see where it all went wrong but not clever enough to do anything about it.
This is a fine literary novel with an ambition to be greater than a gangster-police thriller. Barlay has achieved his goal and more.
Daily Mirror, 27 April 2000, Hooky Gear
Funny, poignant, oozing attitude and character, this is the final part of Barlay’s urban trilogy. Hits the spot.
Big Issue 7 May 2001, Hooky Gear
Within this inferno of hard-boiled pitilessness lurks a redemption drama of moral awakening… A brilliant haunting snapshot of a subculture.
Red, July 2001, Hooky Gear
A compelling tale of today’s urban underworld
Sleaze Nation, July 2001, feature/interview
Barlay has brought to bear his acute observational powers in all three novels, riffing impressively on the mixed bag of dialects and slangs that the cosmopolitan metropolis throws up…a cultural topographer of his city.