Song Sung Blue

The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes

Commenting on the status of the modern hero in fiction, Martin Amis argued, “Nowadays our protagonists are a good deal lower down the human scale than their creators:  they are anti-heroes, sub-heroes.”   One hopes that this dictum holds true for David Milnes, author of The Ghost of Neil Diamond.   For Milnes’ protagonist, bearing the blandly English name of Neil Atherton, is a lost man on the edge of the abyss.

Atherton has washed up in Hong Kong, dragged into the territory on the coat-tails of his wife, Angel.   Back in England, back in the past, he had known modest success as a musician on the folk scene club circuit.   But now he’s 48, these meagre stage triumphs are a fading memory and Atherton appears increasingly redundant to his younger wife, who has carved out a niche for herself in the city’s corporate hierarchy.

Eventually, an exasperated Angel washes her hands of her husband, leaving him enough Hong Kong dollars for a flight back to the United Kingdom with some to spare.   But Atherton refuses to retreat with his tail between his legs.   He falls into the ambit of Elbert Chan, a diminutive Cantonese businessman operating from a seedy backstreet office.   Chan handed his business card to the Englishman after a rousing rendition of “Song Sung Blue” and now dangles before the destitute Atherton the lucrative prospect of being part of a celebrity tribute act.   Neil’s preparation is not just to learn how to sing like Neil Diamond but, in some Zen-like way, to become the American superstar.

While waiting for Chan’s purported connections to open doors, Atherton spends his nights on the floor of a language school’s classroom and purgatorial days wandering the humid streets of an alien city.   There are echoes here of Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd.”

Ostensibly rooted in the superficial world of tribute singers, this is a book that subtly plays with the tropes associated with its subject matter to raise some interesting questions about what represents the real, and what constitutes the fake.   Crossing the spectacular Tsing Ma Bridge, Atherton reflects on the engineers and builders who make this feat of engineering possible and compares their achievement with his own contribution to this world:

His sort need not be taken at all.   There was…  a need of some kind for people such as Neil Diamond, though surely even they must find it hard to live with themselves after a while.   But whatever case could be made for the pedlar of…  illusion, there was surely no case at all to defend one who only followed, the counterfeit and imposter running along behind.

This angst over how the professional impostor can maintain his self-worth reaches a crescendo in the novel’s second half, when Atherton’s attempt to usurp another Diamond impersonator – a photocopy of a photocopy – threatens to annihilate his personality.

This book has its comic aspects, but it’s a dark comedy.   The environment through which the main actor moves like a ghost is deftly evoked.   The ambience of subterranean hotel bars is conjured with a reference to mirror balls that “shed loose change all over the floor.”   The Star Ferry that shuttles between Kowloon and the island is revivified with a simile:  “Children scrambled ahead and flipped over the back-rests, making a wonderful clattering sound across the teak decks, like the fall of mah-jong tiles.”

Above all, this book meditates on how the city can be framed in radically different ways:  how it appears in the floor-to-ceiling panes of an exclusive hotel’s breakfast bar as opposed to the prospect offered by the windows of a McDonald’s.

Despite some ragged edges, this is a work of unexpected substance.

This review was written by Shane Berry.   It appeared in original form (“A Ghost of a Chance”) on the Dublin, Ireland based writing website A Harmless Fraud; http://www.harmlessfraud.com/ .   Used with the permission of the reviewer and the book’s author, David Milnes.

 

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