Iain Sinclair: American Smoke

Click here to read my Sunday Times review of Iain Sinclair’s new book, American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. It’s a short one – 230 words – so even if you don’t have a subscription, you can read most of the review in the over-the-paywall preview.

Iain Sinclair: American Smoke

As it’s such a short review, I didn’t have room to include some of my favourite passages from the book. So here they are, somewhat stripped of context.

“Like Kerouac I was slow to draw breath, a blue baby. Provoked to shout only when hope was fading, after my visiting father dropped a book, a detective story, on my head.”

(On the sale of Kerouac’s raincoat to Johnny Depp, referred to in the review)
“Depp dropped around. With his chequebook. A deal was struck. He was a pleasant, modest young man. Not bad looking. Polite. The quantity of noughts made the eyes water, but what I never managed to learn as a dealer is that you can’t charge too much for the unique item. Price confers value. The customer expects it. The least you can do is to offer your client the status of having paid a spectacular premium, thereby demonstrating seriousness.”

(Discussing with author Gregory Gibson the death of Gibson’s son, about which he wrote a book, Gone Boy: A Walkabout)
“The old life stopped for Greg at the split second of this event, and writing the book was one step towards whatever was coming next. What was required in the enveloping darkness, he felt, was a journey, a walkabout (a concept Greg admitted he barely understood). He developed a technique for ‘revisiting those power spots that are part of your geography’. The terrible pain does not disappear, or take new forms, but very slowly, day after day, the world shifts to accommodate it. ‘It’s a comedy in the classical sense,’ Greg said, ‘in that it begins in disorder and moves to order.'”

(On the end of the era of gangsters like the Krays and the Richardsons: “enthusiastic torture buffs and amateur (sans anaesthetic) dentists”)
“The first era of gangster-businessmen as the patrons of fading TV stars and cabaret singers, sexual predators who liked to rub shoulders with boxers and gay politicians like Tom Driberg and Lord Boothby, drew to a close. Giving way to teenage scream shows compered by middle-aged eccentrics hiding behind the shield of conspicuous charity. The toxic jukebox of Jimmy Savile, marathon man, hospital stalker, and marriage counsellor, by appointment, to Charles and Diana.”

(After interviewing Gregory Corso)
“When we take our leave of Corso, his minders ask after first editions of the authors they’d like to feature in the shop: Larkin, Barbara Pym. The masque of England the veteran Beats enthuse over – P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Peter Ackroyd – is as much a surprise to me as my fondness for Wieners, Lew Welch and Ed Dorn is to them. We are both chasing, in our ignorance, compensatory stereotypes of difference.”

Iain Sinclair: American SmokeThe dust jacket unfolds to a poster-sized map


  1. I love the quotes you’ve chosen but I was only able to read a paragraph of your full Sunday Times review unfortunately. Perhaps I’ll be able to catch it a bit later. On the Edge of The Orison and London Orbital are two exceptional accounts of journeys in and around London. I find Sinclair is a writer who has to be experienced in small bites – it took me a year to go round the M25 with him. His prose is so dense and allusive and despairing and funny. His mordant observations on British culture are accute and it will be interesting to see his take on America. I’ve never found his anarchic novels at all readable though perhaps because he likes meandering too much and I like a bit of structure in my fiction.

  2. I don’t know…I’ve always been interested in reading Sinclair but if “the last thin man in America” is the level of wit and insight he displays I might have to pass. It’s like a American cracking wise about the quality of British teeth — pretty slim material.

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