lowry: between the eternals and the quacks


Malcolm Lowry wrote one great book; the rest was miscellany. Before we get to the (freshly collected) miscellany, a word about the one great book. Single-masterpiece authors tend to divide into two camps: the Eternals (Cervantes, Sterne, Melville), or the world-historical quacks who pack everything into a single, unyielding wallop; and the Eternal Adolescents (De Quincey, Kerouac, Exley), or burnout cases who pull it together to manufacture a cult classic. It was Lowry’s fate to fall right in between the two. Coming of age a half-generation after “Ulysses,” the British-born, Cambridge-educated Lowry wanted to produce not just a novel but a cosmos-surfing, cosmos-swallowing book of books. “Under the Volcano” takes place in a demi-Joycean 12 hours, on the feast of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and took Lowry a Joycean 10 years to fully emit. No one would ever call it underdone. Following the last hours in the life of a British dipsomaniac, “Under the Volcano” embraces everything from Dante to Freud to the cabala. Here it shambles like Cervantes, there it rages like Ahab, and every page of it pulsates on Out of Body Auto-Reply, that style of pure Lowry that points at once backward, to all European literature, and forward, to the mother of all nervous breakdowns.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.