"A Smuggler's Bible" by Joseph McElroy

A wonderful book but one you have to read closely. It’s not an easy read but once you get the structure it begins to flow easily. McElroy is considered one of the more important novelists in the last 40 years or so. I had never heard of him until he was recommended to me. This was the novel that was recommended, considered his most accessible novel. A smuggler’s bible was usually a hollowed out book of some sort, used to conceal contraband. In this particular novel the “smugglers bible” is more metaphorical. It concerns the life of the protagonist, David Brooke, and it follows his life from a boy in Brooklyn Heights, New York through his years at Columbia University, to the present time, which is himself carrying eight different manuscripts to a mysterious old man in London. Each of these manuscripts are a version of David’s life as he tries to “project” himself into the lives of others. Each of the manuscripts are “written” by a different character that David meets throughout his life and therefore has differing points of view.

 

Throughout the novel though, there is another “narrator” who interjects, tries to “guide” David through the process. It becomes apparent that this narrator is McElroy himself, becoming part of the action, telling us what he’s trying to tell his invented character. But the structure of the novel is somewhat conventional enough that you don’t get confused by it all. That narrator’s interjections come between each of the eight manuscripts that David is in the process of revising and changing as he travels by boat to meet the man in London. It’s a wonderfully written book and it gives a good portrait of New York City in the late 1950s, early 1960s. The character development is great and it’s that kind of book that makes you think about it long after you finish reading it. It may seem a little “dated” now but it’s well worth the read. Just don’t expect a quick and easy read. It takes some effort. Fans of Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and the rest of the post-modern writers would probably enjoy this book.

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