Stephen Brook




book review



Stephen Brook

STEPHEN BROOK'S first book, New York Days, New York Nights was published last year and is now out as a paperback. The title is accurate. New York is a city of two tales. In the a.m. commuter humanity gushes up out of the subways and floods the streets. Come darkness they all get swallowed down again and the rather more barbarian nocturnal shift limbers into action.

Brook's description of the city begins at the beginning, as he steps off the plane into a November heatwave and a cab piloted by a "classic specimen". For the next two and a half months he plunges into the NY social (and anti-social) whirl. He meets lawyers, bums, news readers, actors, literary types; he visits Rikers Island, Bellevue hospital, the "higher consumerist" galleries of So-Ho, samples every extreme of bar and cafe and cautiously ventures into the gay club scene ... Indeed he gleefully grabs at anything the Manhattan streets can throw at him (which is most things).

The chapters are brief and brisk, a rapid subject-hopping that echoes the furious pace of the city itself. Brook has the writing agility to bring events, people and places into sharp relief and then mercilessly hone in on the ironies. He's often perceptive and always entertaining. He can even describe being drunk in a manner fit to have the reader wobbling in sympathy.

For his next trip and latest book, Brook followed up the suggestion of an English poet resident at the University Of Texas (!) to visit the Lone Star State.

Many Texans are Texans first, Americans second. A passing car bumper sticker reads: KEEP TEXAS BEAUTIFUL – PUT A YANKEE ON A BUS. The man who works for himself, however rich or poor, is accorded more respect than the salaried lackey of some vast corporation. Personal wealth though, once gotten, is placed on vulgar display. In booming North Dallas up go homes the size of modest mansions ("ours is the colonial with the circular drive"), often stuffed with imported art.

Brook hired a car (a Toyota!) and spent 12 weeks worming around both the Interstates and the dirt tracks. He learned that the best restaurant was the one with the Sheriff's car parked outside. He interviewed oilmen, doctors, timberworkers in the Big Thicket, and visited an annual chili cook-off (78 varieties) which escalated into a beer crazed orgy.

From the hyper claustrophobia and "rocket fuel" accents of NY to the plains, forests and dull cities of Texas (and the wonderful 'drawl'), it's Brook's eye which remains constant. His achievement is simply to take in what's around him and present it with clarity and wit.

In noticing the lack of museums in South Texas, he comments "items that might have been on display – automobiles, varieties of barbed wire, plaid shirts, weaponry, hairstyles – are out on the street".

As ever, the best place to be.


mick sinclair

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