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Jackson's debut novel takes some of what is known of the Duke's life, in addition to folktales about him that still circulate in his native Nottinghamshire, and adds a considerable amount of invention to create the portrait of a bright, hopelessly baffled figure, struggling to carry out the hereditary obligations of his office while sinking deeper and deeper into a hypochondriacal frenzy. The exceedingly wealthy Duke is best remembered for having created a series of vast tunnels—each wide enough to allow a coach-and-four to pass through—leading to his home, to allow him to come and go without being watched by the neighbors. Jackson adds to that actual occurrence an obsession with health—and a desperate fear of the impermanence of life—that drive the Duke to ever wilder attempts to regain well-being. He besieges a number of doctors, convinced that he is exhibiting hideous symptoms of illness and decay, and visits a variety of healers, including spiritualist sisters and a "bone manipulator." All of this is narrated in the first person, as the Duke sets down in his journal a running commentary on the state of his body and on his confusing encounters with the world. There's much here that is sharp and winning: Jackson's re-creation of the Duke's voice—querulous and exact—and of the voices of his many baffled, indulgent retainers. His portrait, through the Duke's eyes, of an age poised between credulity and science is shrewd and fascinating.
But a little of the Duke goes a long way. Jackson's excavation of a damaged, self-absorbed figure finally becomes somewhat wearying. Still, there's enough vigor and imagination here to suggest the emergence of a lively new talent.
SEPTEMBER 30TH I have no idea how an apple tree works. The quiet machine beneath the bark is quite beyond my ken. But, like the next man along, my imagination is always willing to leap into Ignorance's breach...
The tree roots, I imagine, play a major part—somehow managing to soak up the richness of the earth. I picture this richness being drawn slowly up the trunk and pumped out along every branch.
No doubt the sun and rain are also involved, their warmth and moisture in some way being essential to the constitution of the tree. But how the richness of the earth, the sun and the rain come together to produce (i) a perfect blossom, then (ii) a small apple bud—well, that remains a mystery to me.
Excerpted from The Underground Man. Copyright ) 1997 by Mick Jackson.
Posted April 10, 2003
It is well over two years since I've read this book but I still remember it as one of the best-written, most disturbing books I've ever read. The book is funny but sad. I would strongly recommend reading it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.