When I started to read Byron Easy I quickly realised that it was going to be a challenge, not only because of it’s huge scale (500 word-packed pages), but also because I was going to spend all that time in the head of Byron Easy as he travelled by train from London heading to the north of England.
It is a credit to Jude Cook that once I’d got used to the bizarre spaces inside Byron’s brain, I found myself caught up in this rambling retrospective of his chaotic life. My interest grew as I began to learn of his short-lived and disastrous marriage, his self-imposed penury and his seemingly hopeless future.
The book opens with Byron sitting on a train in London’s King’s Cross railway station. It is the last day of 1999. He has with him the sum total of his worldly goods: a leather shoulder bag containing a notebook, a Leeds street-finder, an empty wine-bottle, a toothbrush, a wad of crumpled fivers in a Jiffy bag a change of socks and a pamphlet of his own poetry.
He is a troubled man, who has recently separated from his wife of three years, a topic we are going to explore at length over the next 500 pages, but in the meantime he observes his fellow-passengers and gives us a detailed commentary on the uncomfortable journey he is taking courtesy of Great North-Eastern Railways.
My name is Byron Easy and I am sitting – or rather sardined – in a tight table-constricted booth on a train at King’s Cross and, until a few moments ago, I was alone with my thoughts. I am pointing north, waiting to depart and already dying for a cigarette. . . . I’m trying to remember a lot of facts in order to forget them. Believe me it’s the only way. If you want to close the door on the past, remember it all first; otherwise it keeps returning.
As the train slips out of the station Byron begins to tell us his life story, focusing on his life in London where he eked out a living as part-time record-shop assistant while trying to devote himself to becoming a writer. In his head, Byron is a writer but he seems to have precious little to show for it, other than the developing narrative which he reveals to we, his readers, as we speed north through the outer suburbs of London and on into the hinterland beyond.
Byron’s love life seems to be dominate his thoughts. After describing his life in London, living in a series of appalling flats, he eventually hooks up with Beatrice, a girl from his home-town, who is “level-headed, sane” with a calm beauty which draws Byron into her almond-coloured eyes and auburn hair. The course of love however does not run smoothly; Byron soon meets Mandy, a half-Spanish woman who’s sheer sexiness overwhelms him. With Bea, Byron had had sanity and stability and a relationship which was drifting into normality, but Mandy is a singer with an all-girl band called Fellatrix and has an exotic allure which Byron seems unable to resist.
When Mandy discover that Byron is a writer, she persuades him to write lyrics for her band, a task which requires Byron to take on a nightly climb up four flights of stairs to her opera-house of a room where he drinks wine until the small hours and allows Mandy to divine his future by the use of Tarot cards. Poor Byron seems to be defenceless against the fascinatingly theatrical Mandy despite the her mood-swings, and dramas which suggest there might be a mighty load of trouble ahead.
As we readers hear about these events, Byron keeps breaking off to tell us about his fellow passengers and the events going on around him. The train is as chaotic as any New Year’s Eve express and Jude Cook tells us about the lovers kissing goodbye on a platform racing past, the accountant couple sitting opposite him and the suppressed violence of a man sitting ahead of him. He develops a fast moving flow of words which matches the speed of the train as it rushes north, and for his first novel, Jude Cook demonstrates a remarkable level of self-assurance in his command of language.
I am sitting on the hurtling, fevered train, staring at the pale faces opposite me. Until a moment ago I had been lost in that first kiss, that epidemic summer. And, obviously, weeping. Oh, I forgot to tell you. I made friends with them. The Accountant Couple, that is. Well, they say it’s often the people closest to you that you fail to notice. They’re not accountants after all. She is a counsellor, and he is a mortgage advisor. They had to be didn’t they?Or something similar, something crushingly plausible. Where have all the artists gone? The chisellers and ink-dippers? The mad-haired prodigies of poetry?
And what were those tears about? By this time we have learned that Mandy was not all she seemed to be. Byron married her, perhaps far too early, and the couple lived a hand-to-mouth existence surviving on a minimal amount of money while living in cock-roach infested flats. Before long, strains appeared in their relationship and the horror commenced.
I am not going to spoil the book for readers by describing the horrendous consequences of Byron’s marriage to Mandy. But over the next three of four hundred pages we get the full epic story of a man’s decline and fall, as his woman drives him to the edge and leaves him hanging on by his fingernails over the canyon below. Slowly it becomes clear why Byron seems to be so traumatised – for this was no ordinary marital breakdown but a huge car-crash of a break-up which left Byron barely able to function as a human being once it was all over.
In its way, Byron Easy is unlike any other book I have read (although I was at times reminded of Willy Russell’s book The Wrong Boy, another epic story of developing personal crisis). My sympathy for Byron’s troubles was only spoilt by the way in which they were largely of his own making. The enforced poverty of his existence could easily have been overcome by getting a job, and his head-long rush into marriage with Mandy was accompanied by so many warning signals it took a supremely blinkered individual to ignore them. However, as a piece of modern literature it’s an admirable piece of work and I can only commend Jude Cook for his ability to navigate this novel from beginning to end with such style and panache.