Warwick Collins is the author of a couple of superior (I gather) 18th century pastiche novels, The Rationalist and The Marriage of Souls. Those two form part of a trilogy which, so far as I can tell, has yet to be completed, though the second volume was published in 1999. But he has come to my attention for a novella entitled Gents – you can read an extract on the Amazon page – first published in 1997, and which was recommended by Scott Pack recently on his blog.
It tells the story of Ezekiel Murphy, known as Ez, a Jamaican man living in London, who gets a job in an underground public toilet. Two other West Indians, Jason and Mr Reynolds, work there, and the three while away their time mopping and polishing and replacing cakes of disinfectant. Collins imbues the toilets with an otherworldly air, full of resonant silences and “flowing, bouncing light.”
The plot comes from Ez’s discovery that the toilets are used by men for more than one kind of relief. And scenes of illicit encounters have never been dispatched with greater economy:
When Ez looked again there were two pairs of shoes in the nearest cubicle, facing each other. As he watched, one pair of shoes turned the other way.
And so Ez, Jason and Mr Reynolds come under pressure from the council to reduce the amount of ‘cottaging’ in the toilets, otherwise they will be closed down. But when they do, this brings the problem back from another angle.
It’s impossible to summarise how brilliantly Collins evokes the underground world of the men, and the laconic poetry (and I do mean poetry) with which he imbues their actions and contemplations. In 140 pages of wide type with lots of dialogue, he brings a Fetherlite touch to thoughts of sin, racism, prejudice, family, society and sex. He has some sort of negative witchcraft going on whereby the fewer words he uses, the more powerful and evocative the dialogue and descriptions become. I have quite genuinely begun seeing my workplace toilets (all white reflective tiles and shuddering pipes, just like the ones in Gents) in a new light since reading it.
Gents is one of those rare little gems, like Ben Rice’s Pobby & Dingan, that punches so far above its weight that it will effortlessly knock you out.