Beatniks: An English Road Novel by Toby Litt

Reviewed by Nathan Dolby

A friend told me about this book, and it took a while for me to find. The subtitle grabbed my attention. Yeah!! We need our own road novel… So, did this book impress me?? No!! I can honestly say that this is one of the worst books I have ever read.

Premise: Mary has returned from University, and the year is 1996. She is bored of her small town, and goes to a party and meets a strange group of people. This group is made up of Jack, Neal and Maggie, whose names are obviously taken from the Beat Generation. The group are mourning the 30th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s “death” – they do not touch, look at or acknowledge anything that was created after 1966. So that includes Dylan, whom they say died in his ‘66 motorbike crash, and that was the end of the Beat movement. As a massive Dylan obsessive, I was not impressed. The ’66 thing is a bizarre idea, because Allen Ginsberg was still alive, as was Burroughs and Kerouac!! A well as countless others who called themselves Beat.

Problems: Mary decides that she wants Jack because he looks dangerous and he has long fingernails. But she storms off after Jack calls her a chick. You would have expected that this would have put her off Jack, but no!! She goes out and becomes a fake Beatnik (a Fakenik, as I will call her). She wants to fuck Jack (as she tells us every couple of pages) and she will get him by any means necessary. She even tells Neal she loves him, just to get Jack.

What is truly disturbing is that this could have been great story. Every now and then an idea came to me that would have changed this whole book and made it half decent. I was compelled to read on, just in case it got better, I was hoping and praying . . . but it didn’t happen. One of the few good moments comes when Neal and Mary go to a 70’s and 80’s bar. They dance to ABBA and piss off Jack. I wanted more of this Toby Litt!! So where is it?? When the book does finally get on the road, as usual it is dull and Jack moans a lot and starts to lose interest in Beat. Neal runs away, after finding Jack and Mary in bed together, and he becomes a Hippy – He wears army boots that have been painted yellow (something that I found hilarious).

This book, if you can call it that, is utter shit. I am being absolutely honest. The whole premise of not using anything past 1966 seemed like a fine idea, but it comes across as ludicrous. Doesn’t this mean that they can’t use certain money?? Yes, it does. It isn’t mentioned though. Doesn’t that also mean that they can’t go into certain buildings, or use soap or buy new clothes?? YES!! But it is never explored in any detail. Litt tries to fill his story with Beat expressions, like “dig,” “hip” and “man.” But he adds them every three lines. The dialogue is very mixed. At certain times it is good and fresh, but then it stagnates.

Jack is a sexist egomaniac. He could have been a brilliant character (minus the sexism) and would have had massive clashes with Mary, but instead he is dull. Neal is quiet, and has a thing for his cat Koko, which is fine but it gets boring very fast. I have nothing decent to say about Maggie because she is a character that doesn’t need to be there. There is nothing remotely decent about the Fakenik. She is a bitch and complains about being nothing to Jack, but she still follows him around. She does nothing but treat Neal as a piece of crap.

If you like books that tell an actual story, and don’t just rehash history with glaring omissions, then this isn’t the book for you!! Go out and read the dictionary, it’s more interesting. But if you do wish to buy it, then please keep the receipt.