Sunday, June 19, 2011

D.D. Johnston's "Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs": Book Review

A humorous and poignant novel about anarchism: possibly a first? This young Scots burger-flipper turned street protester tells what happened a decade ago in a fast-food kitchen, a small town, and at the barricades of anti-capitalist demonstrations in Prague, London, and Thessaloniki. Johnston enlivens this short, accomplished coming-of-age story with what appears a character based on himself, given Wayne Foster's age and tenure at Benny's Burgers. He travels throughout Europe as he rallies against "profit before people".

The novel opens in 2000, in Prague during an anti-World Bank Summit march. Wayne's saved from arrest on a rail track by Manette, a French anarchist with a dirty mouth and broken English who will become one of his lovers. Many chapters follow the pattern of the first: they drift back in chronology and shuffle events, testing the narrator's powers of recollection, the structure of memory. As a comment on history and how it's created, this fictional device allows D.D. Johnston to undermine his authorial control. He imbues his novel with an uncertainty which reifies its content: how long can one refuse to submit to structure?

Amidst "the applause of shattering glass", many scenes evoke the feel of mass marches and sudden panic. As anarchists and socialists, Trotskyists and vegans, provocateurs and hippies, punks and perhaps a few workers drawing wages and not welfare convene, the sensation of change beckons them. But the apparently global triumph of capital represents an enemy before whom many capitulate. Benny's Burgers, the franchise where Wayne enters the ranks of labor and where he learns from his louche co-worker nicknamed Spocky about progressive alternatives, stands for how the means of production stamps out--and on-- today's proletariat.

Johnston illustrates deftly the predicament of how we consume, how few many workers leave as their options for meals and for shopping, how we work for the chain store and how we eat at the logo-laden franchise. He vividly dramatizes the automated regimen behind the grill, as relentless as any endured in Dickensian times. He shows the reality familiar to anyone, like myself, who worked in fast-food, or works in a setting dominated by managers with manuals, whether our labor is classified as manual or not. From the endless demand for more food, faster food, the kitchen's overwhelmed. "So much lettuce had been strewn on the floor that it looked like a lawn was forcing its way through the tiles". Escaping these pressures, Spocky, Wayne and co-workers online form "Benny's Resistance Army" to agitate, educate, and organize workers of this international chain.

This subversion draws him into anarchist circles. But, unlike many coming-of-age novels, Love, Peace & Petrol Bombs skims over Wayne's upbringing or family. He must find his own restive, rebellious comrades. These must be gleaned from the slim pickings of Dundule, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. "When you live in a small town, everyone is the friend of someone you know; the local papers are full of tales of serendipity, of long lost brothers who lived next door to each other and men who found their mother in law's wallet on the High Street; we all live like celebrities, worrying who will recognise us if we go to the shops in old clothes".

The novel favors a halting advance, similar to that of burgers assembled against the press of customers, workers against managers, or leftists against police. "Lives are shaped like asterisks. At any point, lines intersect in a multitude of directions. You can be diverted, driven, driven down tangents, and then made to reverse. It's the same when telling a story".

Later, Wayne will ride the trains around London, out to their terminus, back again, one line after another, in this ambling, impulsive search for meaning. One problem about this book was that at times, after Wayne leaves Benny's, I was uncertain how he managed to roam the island and then the Continent for so long; there are a couple of heists that play a role in the plotting to keep Wayne in pounds and pence, and he does understandably if non-ironically max out his credit card. Opposed to the system of exploitation and regimentation, his progress among the down and out--albeit an educated lot, aided by the dole, squatting, and the kindness of polyglot friends and lovers--turns into the tale of Wayne's way through this disaffected world.

The author articulates fewer political disquisitions than I expected. When his idealists express their ideologies, they do so haltingly, not as propagandists. One scene sends up the dreary college classroom lecture on Marxism, as most students resist the slightest indication that this theory may still be relevant in practice; another episode visits a Socialist Workers' Party campus meeting where the panelists outnumber the three bewildered attendees. Johnston's experience with these misfits allows for Wayne to retell such encounters with wit and energy. While the target audience for this novel, the second in a fiction series from venerable anarchist publisher AK Press, comprises those already converted to opposition, the appeal of this genial, engaging, yet serious search for meaning in a commodified global culture deserves wide acclaim.

For instance, while politics steps back, the tension of relationships edges forward. Wayne laments his lack of romance. He grabs at a one-night stand or a brief encounter in a toilet stall. After one slightly more stable amour, he recalls how he and his girlfriend "didn't break up like a vase or a mirror or a china cup; we split like a piece of wood. We cracked at first. We fractured until you could bend us and make us creak; then we snapped and splintered, until there were only fibres between us, and you could twist us around and pull us apart. When we finally broke, we broke jagged, shaped by our other half".

This passage reveals Johnston's skillful use of metaphor. Now a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire, he crafts an appealing, casual first-person voice. While I read this novel in a day, eager to find out about Wayne's fate, the care with which the prose has been created shows. I found the plot, in its asterisk-patterned chapters that spring out and then double back to the center core, sometimes skimming over the details of the daily grind that I figured would appear to show us how Wayne got by once he was on his own, but access to surreptitious gain apparently, twice over, helps him get by with a little help from his friends. This appeared a slight cop-out, so to speak, but given the milieu in which Wayne survives, it makes sense in context despite my suspension of total belief. At least he and his grousingly genial or annoyingly smug mates enjoy the benefits of wine, weed, or a bequest once-removed from some thriftier elder or greedier investor.

The liberation of such capital from its accumulators means Wayne and Manette and their friends can storm the barricades all over the Continent. In Thessaloniki, at Aristotle University, a leftist takeover of the campus shows what happens after the authorities are cowed to retreat. It's not exactly the reopened gates of Eden.

The Philosophy Building was guarded by a man in an unbuttoned sleeveless shirt, who sat on a broken wooden chair, chewing gum and tapping his palm with a short club. Inside, our feet crunched on broken glass. The paint fumes made you feel drunk, and the slogans were hard to read because so many lights were broken. 'By any means necessary.' 'The Future is Unwritten.' 'Ultras AEK.' 'No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes." The shadows, and the people in the shadows, and the closed doors, carried the suggestion of an ambush, so I found myself looking left and right, as if crossing a road.

Wayne and his comrades fight the good fight but the odds, as ever, overwhelm them. His pals and mates scatter; jobs, marriages, degrees, and careers beckon. He tries as in so many capers to revive the old gang for one last heist. He speculates how, at twenty-three, six or seven years on, the struggle had waned. "It was like closing a door to which you have no key: you want to hold it ajar while you check you have everything, and when you finally let go, you feel a fluttery panic, a sense of having left something valuable behind".

This thoughtful, modest, and winning narrative concludes with not a bang but a similarly muted closing of a door--to a millennial sense of possibility, of "no logo" and "rage against the machine" that energized a resurgent Left against Capital. Wayne and Johnston appear to merge their forces as the last sentences emerge. The narrator imagines the ultimate fate of his friends and lovers. Now, he includes us. "I'd like to imagine that you and I will meet during some as yet unimagined social struggle. We'll stand guard on a picket line or share the weight of a banner. When your hands are up and your head is bleeding and the police are preparing to charge, we will link our arms."

The traditional language of solidarity, of intimacy, and of meaning flows smoothly. Yet the last paragraph shakes us out of class-based, if romantic, reverie. His reader may recline in the bath, on the sofa, ready for washing hair or going to bed before another work day. Still, the chance for change remains: "I'd like to think you're on a train. You'll watch the fields pass until the sun sets, until you start to see only a reflection of yourself." These final sentences suggest the poetic touch under the raised banner, the rose held in the fist of socialist iconography, the thorn that pricks amid the beauty of a world that embraces us and alienates us. (PopMatters featured  6-1-11; book's publication 7-1-11)

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