Boxer, Beetle, Madness
Ned Beauman‘s debut novel Boxer Beetle is one of the strangest books I’ve read in awhile – almost impossible to classify, explain, or handsell to anyone. Regardless, here’s my short little pitch:
Kevin is a dealer in Nazi memorabilia – he’s not a collector, personally, but he has found a niche in the online market that he’s happy to exploit. He doesn’t leave his London apartment much, however, due to his acute trimethylaminuria, which leaves him constantly reeking of rotten fish. However, following instructions from his biggest client, Kevin forces himself out into the world against his better judgements and stumbles onto a murder scene & a mysterious 1936 letter from Adolf Hitler to a Dr. Philip Erskine that sets the whole bizarre mystery in motion.
It turns out that Philip Erskine was a fascist British entomologist with a disturbing human eugenics agenda who managed to breed a nearly indestructible beetle in honor of the Führer. Erskine’s story – told in alternating chapters with Kevin’s – is distinctly intertwined with that of the 5-foot tall, nine-toed, Jewish, homosexual boxer, Seth “Sinner” Roach. Still with me?
Despite his diminutive stature, Sinner is a phenomenal pugilist and a bizarre physical specimen. When Erskine stumbles upon him in 1934, he is well on his way to a shot at a championship bout – only to be derailed by a horribly bad attitude towards everyone around him and a love for only a bottle of gin. The relationship between these two vastly different men is hardly that – a “relationship” – but more an infatuation on the part of Erskine and a raging hatred by Sinner that causes their lives to intersect in bizarre ways over the course of several months in 1934. Which ultimately, eventually, strangely reveals the tale of how Hitler wrote a letter to Philip Erskine.
Kevin’s side of the story – while his gag-inducing affliction is fantastic – felt a bit as if it were forced in between the pages of the rest of the book. (His is a detective story, of a sort, and it read a bit false & amateurish to my eyes.) The 1930’s vein is filled with enough bizarreness to carry the load – beetles with natural swastika markings on their wings, drunk, gay, midget boxers, fascist entomologists, invented languages, dissonant music composers, and some truly wonderful turns of phrase. Plus, Beauman can be funny as hell – take his opening sentences:
In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party. I like to think that even in the busy autumn of 1940, Hitler might have found time to organize a surprise party for his close friend…
To me, Boxer Beetle is but a glimpse – an early shot across the bow – of what Ned Beauman is capable of. While it may not be for everyone – what with all the Nazis and homoeroticism – there is an undeniable skill at work here and he has created a weird little world that exists just beyond the fringes of what we think we know about history and the people who populate our world. Keep your eyes on this dude.