A darkly comic debut novel about advertising, truth, single malt, Scottish hospitality—or lack thereof—and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Ray Welter, who was until recently a highflying advertising executive in Chicago, has left the world of newspeak behind. He decamps to the isolated Scottish Isle of Jura in order to spend a few months in the cottage where George Orwell wrote most of his seminal novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ray is miserable, and quite prepared to make his troubles go away with the help of copious quantities of excellent scotch.
But a few of the local islanders take a decidedly shallow view of a foreigner coming to visit in order to sort himself out, and Ray quickly finds himself having to deal with not only his own issues but also a community whose eccentricities are at times amusing and at others downright dangerous. Also, the locals believe—or claim to believe—that there’s a werewolf about, and against his better judgment, Ray’s misadventures build to the night of a traditional, boozy werewolf hunt on the Isle of Jura on the summer solstice.
From the Hardcover edition.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Andrew Ervin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Budapest, Illinois, and Louisiana. He has a degree in philosophy and religion from Goucher College and completed his MFA in fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His writing regularly appears in The New York Times Book Review, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Believer, Salon, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife, flutist Elivi Varga. He is the author of Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of novellas. Burning Down George Orwell’s House is his first novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
Even standing still, finally, Ray Welter's body remained in motion and subject to inner tidal forces beyond his control. The rain felt more like the idea of wetness than anything resembling drops and it made its way inside his coat and new boots. Everything ached. He struggled to recall with any certainty what the word dry referred to. The rain fell upward. He wanted to cry.
The journey had been a thirty-six-hour nightmare spent suffocating in an airplane seat, riding in a bus on the wrong side of the road, sailing, and hitchhiking — and he still had to wait for what looked like a five-minute ride over to the Isle of Jura. A talkative, red-faced woman had dropped him off at the ferry terminal. "You might as well give me that fancy wristwatch of yours," she had said. "You certainly won't be needing it out here." At least that was what he thought she said. The accent would take some getting used to. "And you just wait till you get ahold of these paps."
Ray could discern two of Jura's three mountains through the fog and rain and from the eastern side of Islay, the Paps of Jura looked exactly like a woman's breasts. There was no mistaking it. The entire island resembled a naked girl lying on her back.
He stood at the very precipice of the wired world. The air tasted fresher than anything he had ever sucked into his Chicago-polluted lungs. His pores worked to rid themselves of the poisons of his previous life and he shivered from the sweaty underclothes, yet some source of heat rose to his face. Across the sound, a ferryman attended to his duties on the deck of a blue-green boat big enough to tote maybe a dozen cars. Jura was so close. Overheated and shivering at the same time, Ray now understood why that island was among the least populated of Scotland's Inner Hebrides. No direct, public connection existed from the mainland. He carried with him only an elaborate backpack and a suitcase that contained the sum of his worldly possessions.
He wandered along the waterfront and awaited the next-to-last leg of the journey. One of Islay's six whisky distilleries loomed over the ferry port, but he couldn't discern the presence inside of bodies or spirits. It looked deserted, without as much as a gift shop where he could buy a carryout bottle. A sip of scotch would have tasted so fucking perfect. Over on the inert boat, the ferryman moved slowly and without demonstrable purpose or motivation, oblivious to the weather.
A row of squat houses boasted the greenest lawns on the gods' green earth. Swing sets and seesaws of molded plastic punctuated the grass with happy colors. All of Scotland was green, even greener than the springtime prairie back home. Back at his former home. Out here, Ray discovered a new shade of green. Not quite celadon or vert or even snotgreen, it was the color to which he would forever compare every other green. He already thought of it as Jura green. The acrid smell of burning peat from the chimneys taunted him with the promise of warmth. The hardened mud substitute they used for heat on the islands gave off a strange scent, almost like wood smoke, but more earthy and bitter.
He sat against the empty whisky casks stacked on the stone embankment. The seat of his jeans was already soaked through. He unpeeled the last of his bananas and found it impossible to believe that he had purchased the bunch just that morning. The fluorescence of the supermarket in Oban and the colors of the brightly packaged goods in endless rows glowed in his memory as if from a distant universe.
Ray dropped the peel into the outer pocket of his pack and took a long drink of mineral water that tasted like sidewalk chalk. A blue van approached, its windows clouded inside, and pulled to a stop a few yards from where he sat. The driver flashed his high beams and in reply the ferryman brought the motor to life. A sad-looking girl emerged from the van. She opened an umbrella and buried her face in a paperback, the title of which he couldn't make out. The vehicle reversed course and retreated toward Bowmore. The rear lights glistened red in the wet pavement and only then, and with some regret, did Ray realize how quiet it had been.
Other than the wind and rain, he hadn't heard a sound. No cars, no airplanes, no loud cell phone conversations. It had never before occurred to him that real silence might be possible. He hadn't even recognized it until it disappeared, the victim of the ferry's mechanical roar ricocheting between those Paps. They really did look like breasts. His mind wasn't right.
Man-made noise was one of many new absences that he hoped would define his stay out here. There would be no more bullshit, no more alienation from his own thought processes. He was now officially in absentia from his previous life and ready to begin a new one. The freedom was daunting, but he was up to it. He had to be.
He stood and the ground rolled beneath him like a choppy, concrete sea. Exhaustion had crept into his thighs and lower back. His throat remained parched from the dry airplane and the miles of hiking. That first whisky was going to taste so goddamn good. The girl hiding inside the hood of her raincoat didn't hear him approach, so when he asked, "What are you reading?" she flinched and her book landed in a puddle.
"Don't fucking do that," she said. It was difficult to get a look at her through the layers of rain gear and wool, but she had round cheeks that accentuated her frown. She might have been fifteen or sixteen. "It's none of your business, is it?" She held the book by the spine and shook the water from its pages, then wiped the cover on her skirt, smearing it with dirt.
"I'm so sorry — I didn't mean to scare you."
"Then perhaps stalking up on people isn't your best plan of action."
"I said I was sorry. I'll be happy to buy you a new copy."
"Where do you plan to do that, then?"
"I don't know. How about in Bowmore?"
She mocked his American accent: "How about you leave me alone?"
"Fine, sure. Sorry."
What a hideous child. The ferry pulled to a stop long enough for Ray to follow her aboard. Up close, the ferryman looked older than time itself. "How was school today?" he yelled over the motor.
"Great," she whined.
"I should make you swim home. That'd get you some exercise. You must be our Mr. Welter. Right on time too, I'd say." He pointed to the back of his wrist, but he wasn't wearing a watch.
The girl looked up from her book — it was Freud on the cover — long enough to flash Ray the evil eye.
He gave the ferryman the fare and regretted that he had not brought an obol to pay him with. "Call me Ray," he said and shook the man's hand. No cars or other passengers climbed aboard.
"The name's Singer. We get a lot of people out here looking for Orwell. Sounds like you're serious though."
"I don't know about that. I hope so."
"I understand you're staying at the hotel this evening."
"Craighouse. No s in there. It's the only hotel we have, so I suppose that would be the one. Let me take care of business here if you're going to make it in time for supper."
The boat coughed black smoke into the mist. The motors surged and the ferry — powered by some combination of crowbars, buzz saws, and garbage can lids — backed away from Islay. The motion mimicked Ray's vertiginous balance and the volume of the engines dislodged some bile from the back of his throat. A slave driver down in the galley kept time with a pair of monkey wrenches he banged on a kettledrum full of rusty screws. The vibration found its way to Ray's backbone. The stink of diesel fuel filled his sinus cavity. He would never be still, or dry, ever again. Only motion existed now.
O Eilean Dhiura!
The boat moved, and Ray was carried by a series of systemic forces: he paced in circles, port to starboard, starboard to port while the boat defied the sound's pull, itself directed by the moon; gravity held him and the ferry and the captain and the sea fast to the spinning earth, which carried all of them around a sun, the existence of which was now speculative; a rivulet of mineral water curled its way through his digestive tract and into his circulatory and respiratory processes, while the pouring rain sought every millimeter of exposed flesh.
Even with the ferry nearing the shore, or the shore nearing the ferry, Ray still felt like he might never make it to Jura. Zeno's paradox would take over. He would continue to travel half the distance, and then half of that, and half of that, and ... The closer he got, the more he felt his body shutting down. Famine, dehydration, and fatigue nipped at his heels. Marshmallow-like mucus colonized his chest and bits of it escaped up his throat every time he coughed. The Paps loomed larger. He held on to the railing to maintain what remained of his balance. The motion of the boat felt too familiar now, as did the wind, which reminded him of Chicago. The brat schoolgirl kept her eyes buried in her wet copy of Civilization and Its Discontents.
The ferry stopped and there became here. He had made it. Singer lowered the plank and Ray stepped foot upon the Isle of Jura.
"I'll be seeing you at the hotel just as soon as I've tightened her down here," the ferryman said. "You've come at a good time."
"Great," Ray told him.
"Great," the girl said, making fun of his American accent again.
"Don't mind her," Singer said. "She's not a bad kid once you get to know her. Too smart for her own good, that's her problem."
The air was rich and clean, but he still had to hoof it several miles. He had received the directions via email: from the ferry port, Jura's only paved road curled around the southern butt of the island and then ran two-thirds of the way up the eastern coastline to Craighouse, which sat in the mouth of a bay and faced the Scottish mainland. The caretaker of the hotel there, Mrs. Campbell, was expecting him. He had a reservation for one night.
After a good night of sleep he would pick some supplies up at the Jura Stores, which was owned by the same couple who would serve as his landlords for the next six months. Then he would hitchhike twenty-five miles up toward the northern tip to Barnhill, the estate where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. That was where Ray would begin his new life. It was still difficult to believe.
Before donating his laptop to a Buddhist temple on the North Side, he had searched online for rental properties on Jura, but never imagined that Orwell's very own house would be available. The rental agent he reached in Glasgow said he was very lucky that he phoned when he did. Just that morning a young couple from London had made serious inquiries about buying the property or perhaps renting it as a summer cottage. Barnhill was fully furnished, she had said, and would comfortably sleep eight. The rental had cost him every last dollar that remained in his own name, but getting off the grid for half a year would be worth any expense and hassle from Helen and her junta of divorce attorneys, even with the knowledge that when the lease expired he would be flat broke and have no place to live.
The girl pushed past Ray and climbed into the cab of an old flatbed truck. Bagpipe music blared from the radio and he couldn't figure out if the effect was meant to be ironic. The driver leaned toward the passenger-side door and rolled down the window. He had a perfectly round head with a bulbous nose and slack double chin, his hair buzzed down to a military-style flattop. "You Welter?" he yelled.
"Then get the fuck in here."
His legs would not have made it to Craighouse.
"Great, I'd love a ride, thank you. I'm going to —"
"To the hotel, aye."
"Look what he did to my book," the girl said.
"You don't need to be reading that shite anyway. You may have noticed that it's raining, Chappie, so would you please get the fuck in here?"
The girl squeezed over so Ray could climb inside. The bagpipes might have been used for interrogational purposes. "Ray Welter," he said, holding out his hand. The cab smelled of rancid meat and whisky — exceptional whisky.
The man wiped his fingers on his oily pants before shaking his hand. "I can see you met my Molly."
"She's a little bitch. Aren't you, Molly? Smartest person on Jura is why. Or she was before you graced us with your presence." He laughed until spittle landed on the inside of the windshield. "Hey close the fucking door, Chappie."
"And your name is?"
"You can call me Mr. Pitcairn."
"It sounds like the whole island was expecting me, Mr. Pitcairn."
"The whole island? Who do you think you are, the king? Did you think we're one big happy family? That we were going to throw you a parade?"
"Dysfunctional family is more like it," Molly said.
"Dysfunctional, eh. How do you like that? That's my Molly for you. Do you think maybe I could be the famous advertising executive and you could drive my truck?"
"How do you know about that?"
Pitcairn made typing motions with his fingers. "We have the Internet here too, you know."
"I'm far from famous, in fact," Ray said, "but I'll give the proposal some thought."
"I'll give the proposal some thought," Pitcairn said, making fun of his American accent just like his daughter had done.
He couldn't believe that this guy had looked him up online. It felt so ... intrusive. One night in Craighouse, then he would be on his own and free — free from all the bullshit and hassle, from the meaningless social rituals and phony smiles, from the technological gadgets that had ruined his attention span and fucked up his very thinking.
"Okay, I've thought about it," he said. "No way in hell."
Pitcairn stepped on the accelerator. Ray rubbed his elbow on the window in order to see out, but that was a mistake. The narrow road adhered to the coastline and snaked its way between a series of cliffs and the shoreline. The slightest skid on the wet pavement would send them hurtling into the icy water. Pitcairn fumbled with a pack of cigarettes and took every treacherous bend at full speed. Ray bounced in his seat. The tires squealed with each blind turn.
They crossed a small bridge, and the road bent away from Islay and up a hill. Jura appeared to be little more than a collection of craggy mountains protruding from the sea. The shade of green was something else. The terrain was covered in patchy grass and weeds and exposed stone surfaces. Innumerous valleys housed depthless lakes. Blue-white boulders had been strewn everywhere and organized by forces beyond human understanding. The island looked desolate and windswept and raw — in other words, ideal.
The road — now too narrow for more than one car — climbed to a peak but the mist made it difficult to get much of a view.
"There's a standing stone coming up," Molly said. "One of the best preserved examples in the Inner Hebrides."
"If you can fight past the fucking tourists to get at it."
"You can't miss it from the road, and we only get a couple of hundred fucking tourists a year."
"Aye, and it's a couple of hundred too many! Mind your fucking mouth."
They drove through an area of farmland and past a few old houses, then ascended to another bend in the road, which Pitcairn again took at full speed. Ray had read about the enormity of the island's sheep population, but the statistics did little justice to the reality. They were everywhere. Jura belonged to the sheep, not to the humans.
The road curled to the left to put them parallel with Jura's eastern seaboard. They approached a small forest with a shag carpet of brown and green moss. Clusters of small pines and what appeared to be gnarly beech or birch or something like that sprouted up all over the place. The fog moving in looked like spools of insulation covering the ground as if to protect it from the rain.
Here he was. This was his life now. He could already feel his —
"Look out!" Molly screamed and Pitcairn pressed the brake pedal hard enough to send the truck sliding to a halt. The left side of Ray's head banged into the dashboard. A family of deer scampered off unawares toward the shore.
"Fucking red deer," Pitcairn said. "We need to do something about them."
"They were here before we were," Molly said.
"They're a fucking menace all the same is what they are."
Pitcairn stepped on the gas again. An ugly warehouse provided the first indication that they were approaching Craighouse. The truck gained more speed down the steep hill leading to the town — but perhaps the word town was too generous. Craighouse appeared to be a tranquil little village overlooking the sea and dedicated to the fine art of making single-malt scotch. The hills and open water made the huge distillery buildings and the hotel look like parts of a fortress built at the edge of paradise to keep the unwashed heathens at bay.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Burning Down George Orwell's House"
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Ervin.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This introspective debut novel chronicles the ups and downs in the life of Ray Welter, a farm boy who rose to the top of his profession until his inner self caught up with him. Then he tossed it all away in effort to escape everything he had left behind in Chicago: a high-paying advertising job, a wife, and a way of life with which he had increasingly become disenchanted. He takes off to the Scottish Isle of Jura. And rents, for six months (with the last of his funds which he hopes to spend before his wife grabs the money in the divorce settlement), the cottage where George Orwell wrote and finished the satirical novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The inhabitants of Jura are an eccentric bunch, protective of each other and their way of life, especially disdainful of outsiders, tourists and the like. Ray’s intrusion sets up many amusing situations. That Inner Hebrides island is known for its single malt scotch, and Ray consumes a prodigious amount in an effort to either lose or find himself. In the meantime, not only does he have to cope with his own troubles but also deal with the foibles and problems arising from the various characters in the community. The author uses comedy to mask the seriousness of the novel, which deeply probes Ray’s thinking, seeking to define the good and bad of his life as he knows it and distilling the results until Ray can reach an inner peace. It is quite an achievement, rarely seen in a first effort. Can Ray reach his nirvana? Read and enjoy the book, which is highly recommended, and find out.
The characters were flat. The story was tired. The writing was mediocre at best. I paid $1.99 for this book and I still feel like I got robbed.