OR: The Isle of Dogs/The Gospel According to Luke

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #6 as part of a feature on the publisher Serpent’s Tail:-

The Isle of Dogs (Serpent’s Tail paperback, 186pp, £9.99) by Daniel Davies and The Gospel According to Luke (Serpent’s Tail paperback, 316pp, £7.99) are two very different novels, but sexuality is central to both and they share a common theme of intolerance.

Thirty nine year old Jeremy Shepherd, the central character in The Isle of Dogs has dropped out of the rat race, giving up a high paid job in the glamorous world of magazine publishing and going back to his home town, where he lives with his parents and works as a low level civil servant. Jeremy finds personal fulfilment through his involvement in the dogging community, and for those not in the know dogging is a predominantly British pursuit in which couples drive to remote spots and perform sex while others watch, or on occasion are invited to participate, a mutually beneficial accommodation of voyeurs and exhibitionists. Jeremy is firmly wired into the network, with connections and friends in the community. He knows all the tricks, how to avoid police patrols and what steps to take to protect himself from unreliable strangers. Only of late the scene has turned sour, with increasing police activity and vigilantism from the ‘straight’ world, and ‘outing’ of people involved, with subsequent damage in their personal lives. Jeremy himself is lured to a rendezvous and then beaten unconscious by thugs who object to what he is doing. Undeterred, he recovers in hospital and plans for a car park dogging session with all his favourite people, only for the book to deliver a final, grim twist.

Toby Litt compares Daniel Davies to J G Ballard in the cover blurb, and given the commonality of cars and sex Crash is an obvious point of reference, but there the similarity ends. Dogging is a widespread practice, but as far as I’m aware orgasmic automobile accidents are not; while Crash was a study of a peculiar and highly individual psychology, The Isle of Dogs seems more concerned with proselytising an alternate lifestyle. Jeremy has a personal philosophy which he expounds on at entertaining length, embracing ideas of the pursuit of happiness and the democratisation of sex through pornography and practices such as dogging, whereas for the Ballard of Crash sexuality seems almost solipsist in nature, with happiness never an issue. While The Isle of Dogs does end badly, with a plot twist that I saw coming and which I imagine Ballard would regard as a cheap shot, there is plenty of humour instead of the grim tone of Crash.

So what does the book have to offer? It’s a fast paced read with an engaging and believable cast of characters, and there is a lot of sex though not written in a way that is going to provide the prurient with wank fodder. At its heart the book is about alternative lifestyles, providing an insight into practices most of us will only connect to through the medium of fiction, with Jeremy’s thoughts on happiness and related matters adding a hint of social SF in the same vein as Rhinehart’s The Dice Man. It’s also a book about intolerance and the persecution of those who step outside the boundaries of what society regards as acceptable. Jeremy and the other characters suffer for their life choices, be it with physical punishment or exposure in the tabloid press (one need only think of the Max Mosley affair to realise how topical and relevant this is), and regardless of how we feel about dogging itself larger issues about individual freedom are involved.

Maguire’s The Gospel According to Luke is even more pertinent when it comes to such matters as the individual’s right to choose.

Luke Butler is a poster boy for the Christian Revolution and at just under thirty the head of the Northwestern Christian Youth Centre. On the opposite side of the street are the offices of the Sexual Health Advisory Service, which Luke is determined to shut down, until he meets lank, ungainly Aggie Grey, who works at the SHAS. There is an instant physical attraction between the two and Luke decides that she is the woman he is destined to be with; only first he must open Aggie’s eyes to God’s message, as he can’t possibly marry a non-believer.

Maguire gives us attraction of opposites taken to the extreme in the unlikely romance between these two damaged souls. Luke was an orphan and never knew who his parents were, instead finding a family in the Church and a purpose to his life preaching God’s word. Aggie’s father committed suicide and she is the survivor of several bad relationships. Her mother and her best friend are both gay, while Luke believes that gays go to hell, along with suicides and abortionists. He cannot deny his desire for Aggie, but neither can he jettison his beliefs, and the inner conflict is tearing Luke apart, while his career is jeopardised as their relationship grows.

As the backdrop to this story Maguire gives us a society in which an increasingly violent brand of fundamentalism is cracking down on abortion and turning against those seen as facilitating the procedure. Right wingers daub graffiti on the walls and break windows at the SHAS, and take name and shame pictures of the young women who come to Aggie for advice. One such is pregnant Honey, who Luke determines to save, and thus the ideological conflict between the two would be lovers is given a very human face, that of a frightened girl who nonetheless knows how to manipulate them both for her own advantage. And as the campaign against the SHAS grows ever more nasty a terrible tragedy ensues.

Comparisons with Romeo and Juliet are apposite, in that you have a couple who are meant to be together but separated by issues of faith and ideology every bit as divisive as the family feuds of Renaissance Italy, and not so easily resolved. Maguire writes beautifully and really gets inside the heads of the characters, bringing them alive and making this ideological conflict both vital and heartrendingly painful. The desires and doubts that tear Luke apart are convincingly portrayed, so that we can’t help but feel for him in his torment, loving a woman who represents so much that his fundamentalism requires him to reject. The question is posed, can you respect someone, love them even, when they have different values to you? In those circumstances something has to give, and if I have one tiny reservation about the book it’s that Luke never gets to state his beliefs in a way that might possibly win Aggie over. She is screamingly articulate in protesting the unfairness of a God who gives people desires they are then punished for having, but Luke’s counter argument never seems to amount to much more than ‘it says in The Bible’, and that somewhat diminishes the character. In his arguments with Aggie he is always handicapped, and the neutral reader will invariably side with her and see Luke as unreasonable and irrational, but perhaps that is the very point Maguire wants to put over, that there is no argument to support his beliefs, only blind faith.

If Luke’s arguments do not convince, the actions of the other Christians repel, be it the condemnations of the elders in Luke’s church or the outrages committed by the fundamentalist group opposed to SHAS. There is a terrible intolerance at work here, seen in a hate campaign directed at those who are ill equipped to defend themselves from the holier than thou brigade. As Bertrand Russell once said, the thing with nice people is that they have such nasty minds, and Maguire certainly gives us some nice people here. The book’s message about the dangers of extremism is especially apposite in today’s climate and gives the book a significance beyond its actual subject matter. For all of that though, and regardless of the horribly inevitable tragedy that occurs at the end, Maguire seems to feel that there is hope for us, that things like love and mutual respect and simple human caring will triumph over dogmatism, that there will always be signs of new growth.

I’ve only touched on the good things about this book, but hopefully it’s enough to make you consider buying it. Maguire is an interesting writer with important things to tell us and the ability to say them well, to engage with the reader intellectually and emotionally. The Gospel According to Luke delivers on the promise of her first book, Taming the Beast, and I look forward to seeing what she produces next.

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