A review that originally appeared in Black Static #20:-
PONTHE OLDENGUINE (Atomic Fez paperback, 176pp, £11.99) is the latest novel by Andrew Hook, a long overdue follow up to the excellent Moon Beaver. Seeking to make his mark an unnamed reporter for a local newspaper decides to sleep rough on the streets of Norwich as research for an article about the city’s homeless. It’s meant to be for one night only, but he falls in with a man calling himself Ponthe Oldenguine, with fascinating tales to tell, and so cannot prevent himself going back for more. Ponthe claims to have been a genius of light entertainment who was so radical and visionary that the authorities expunged him and all his works from the public record. Certainly our narrator, who Ponthe refers to as Trunka (and so shall I) can find no evidence of the existence of ‘Captain Crowface’ or ‘Radio Cardboard Fox’ or the village of ‘Theberton’, despite Ponthe’s claims that they were immensely popular in their day. And while he continues his research, Trunka’s life falls apart, with both his career and relationship with his girlfriend endangered. By way of consolation, he gets the power to freeze time, but doing so only causes more problems for him, and that’s when things start to get really complicated.
If Hook’s first novel put me in mind of the work of Tom Robbins, this one reads like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 reinvented for the reality TV generation, with an obscure star of screen comedy in place of a clandestine postal service. Despite its brevity this is a book fizzing with ideas. While so much of it, at least superficially, seems preposterous, beneath the surface serious commentary is being made about the banality of modern entertainment and life itself, so that these truths sink in even as we laugh at the idea of Captain Crowface, or the village of Theberton where everyone is named after an animal, or the idea that time can be frozen. We shake our heads in bemusement at the thought of a live TV show in which a DJ is dressed in a cardboard fox costume, with the song Living in a Box on continual play and the DJ shouting ‘Fox’ every time the word ‘box’ is used. Then we put the book aside, turn on the TV and watch some D-Lister eat bugs on I’m a Celeb or a former Minister prancing round a ballroom dressed as Big Bird in Strictly, with hopefully some awareness of the irony. In the absurdity sweepstakes, fact has outrun fiction. We live in surreal times, and Hook is their chronicler.
A word about the book’s structure, where form mirrors content, and the medium is the message. The story is ostensibly written by Trunka, each chapter consisting of a biographical narration by Ponthe and then notes by Trunka, in which he discusses his fascination with the character and aspects of his own life, also with footnotes by the editor expressing scepticism about it all. I say ostensibly, because at the end there is the possibility that all this is a device used by Ponthe for his own ends: the term ‘unreliable narrator’ has seldom been as apposite. And then there are the appendices – reproductions of newspaper advertisements placed by Ponthe, and the text of a short story by Trunka that was part of his inspiration. These twists and bluffs at the end of the book tie it all together neatly, without any loss of narrative momentum and before the concept wears out its welcome. Hook doesn’t set a foot wrong with the writing, his voice charming the reader so that we accept the audacity of his invention, the way in which it continually fools not only us but also itself. It is his best book yet, and I loved it.