Wednesday, September 23, 2009

David Greenslade's "Celtic Hot-Tub": Book Review

Mock Keltic Magickal Artes vs. "the language issue" creates tension in this Welsh poet's first novel. Allegorically tinged, it's more fun than Charles Williams. (Or Raymond.) After a creaky start, characters whir and rant fitfully, under Greenslade's jaundiced eye and pitiless manipulation.

Hugh Cadarn, of course not Welsh but a Brighton-born wizard (nee Clifford Wryneck), fancies himself a Merlinesque oracle: "Channel for the Divinity of these Islands/ with a Timely Message for the Whole Totality of Men." So, he recruits Gomer from Anglesey, a crustie but a native speaker, as an "ovate" to "translate" his "bardic utterances" from the nonsense they are into cod-Cymric. They huddle at "Galatia Home Farm," yet another Englishman's rural retreat in the hills of Gwent. Hugh peddles Galatia's dubious charms at "Celtic Wrestling" fairs and psychic conventions as "a Retreat beyond the Din. Oaks where Seekers can Absorb Teachings of the Great Vates in Sweet Silence." He tries in vain to cash in on the New Age Pagan craze. Runaway Sheena, with her own secrets, joins them in an uneasy menage-a-trois as they try to conjure up venerable earth-spirits.

Meanwhile, Terri Ayre (pronounce the name) with a Ph.D. thesis on "Self-Affirmation" movements in America, freelances gathering antiquarian tracts in the public domain to chop up and publish as pamphlets, books, and website fodder to sell antiquarian "Seltica," as her boss Stone pronounces it, lore to crystal-chanting, moon-worshipping gullible Yanks. She's a hard woman to figure out, as many in this story will learn. Her path into Wales' cultural battleground intersects first with Sieffre, a Welsh-language tutor, and Annie, her host, who paints over English-only signs as a linguistic rebel. He resents "pseudo-Celtic obsession" as "remote" and about as applicable to modern Wales' discontent as is Cleopatra to Cairo today.

Terri argues that if there wasn't some authenticity, nobody'd buy what she's selling. Sieffre finds that what Terri thinks is thriving he sees as collapsing. "At the soggy end of our hard work we get this hijacking. Just when our schools are crap and the population isn't strong enough to promote dreamweavers of its own. We're snuffed out by these myth-snatchers." Sieffre despises the "Awesome Mystery Dish" but Terri contemplates exporting a whole new Celtic Mystery Tradition back to the South, were as Greenslade appears to sketch, many eager customers await "Seltica."

His chapters can be uneven as the broad plot begins in a Southern U.S. setting that appears too familiarly satirized. While Terri's immersion into Welsh seems surprisingly rapid even for a scholar with a doctorate, it lacks the detail that for a non-Welsh reader might have explained necessary details along the way of her mastery of Cymraeg. However, this book's printed by a Welsh-oriented press, and I assume the author expects a more insular audience for his musings on how outsiders bash around the inflated ideal of Wales while ignoring obliviously or insulting patronizingly its less romanticized reality. Gomer vs. Hugh: the conflict endures.

Then, Greenslade begins moving the characters towards Galatia. Joined by a Gullah-speaking black librarian from the Carolinas, Claude, who like other men in this novel will long for Terri's embraces, the story gathers energy as the clever manufacture of a Celtic hot-tub at the rural farm in all its scrap-heaped dereliction fuels a memorable showdown among those who invade Wales in search of wisdom, profit, and exploitation.

Greenslade, although a poet, prefers here with the exception of a wonderful sentence or two (e.g. "Larks pattered like a chorus of tambourines") to dissect mystification in a hard-edged, acerbic, and often pitiless manner. His sex scenes can be more scary than seductive. He gains in pacing and confidence as the novel progresses, and you start to wonder about the inner thoughts of those who he sketches on the outside. Some of the supporting characters feel underwritten, but this may be intentional to highlight what at the heart of everyone in this story pulses as a mystery: you sense unrest and unhappiness shrouds everyone in these pages. The few glimpses of the animal kingdom, as opposed to their masters, hint at the writer's compassion for the weakest trapped among us.

Greenslade lets you in to his figures enough to intrigue, as with Hugh, but not enough to answer all your questions. This may frustrate some readers, but this deft detachment pleased me by its ultimately mythical gloss upon contemporary pilgrims and profiteers. Reliably. falsity's sold as hallowed insight relayed from ages so long past none of us have much of an idea who the Celts were or what they meant. In this ambiguity, scholars, hacks, and posers all come together to bicker over Celtic identity. At Galatia "alchemical" charlatans and "folkloric" adepts both, for Greenslade's purposes, abuse the Welsh natives for their own ill-gotten plunder. It's a sobering lesson for all those enamored of what's sold as Celtic wisdom.

(Posted to Amazon in the U.S. and Britain 9-23-09) Link to brief biography & works: "David Greenslade"


Bo said...

Oh, I MUST read this!

Fionnchú said...

Bo, you'll love Gomer's "Cymric" interspersed with Hugh's Englished bardic invocations. If ever there was a novel meant for you-- I'm very curious if you can verify what I suspect as archetypes lurking beneath major characters & plot machinations. Like I said, an uneven read, but probably worth a bumpy ride given the sights seen.