A nine-toed gay Jewish boxer in the late 1930s and a 21st century collector of Nazi memorabilia - how was that not going to be a great book? Just the idea strikes of something brilliant, which is how it ended up on that long to be read list, and it was exciting to see it as this month's Scottish Book Talk read.
Kevin collects Nazi stuff as a hobby and his employer rewards him with items for doing various errands. At the start of the novel it leads to him discovering a dead man and a letter from Adolf Hitler to a Doctor Erskine. The book is peppered with chapters surrounding an investigation into who this Erksine is, and what discovery he made that so impressed Hitler.
But the best bits? The best was Seth Roach and Philip Erskine, two completely opposing worlds coming together in the most unlikely of relationships. Seth, or Sinner in the boxing world, is a short, stocky guy, but very tough, and very beautiful. Erksine is an aristocratic enthusiast of entomology and eugenics. He wants to use Seth as an experiment of sorts, part of learning how to sift how out the good genes of a person and carrying them on without all the bad characteristics that come with being a Jew. Their way of interacting with one another is fascinating, and highly unpredictable, not least because of the sexual tension between them.
Seth is brash, a born fighter, and an alcoholic. He's selfish, has no consideration for anyone but himself, and he likes to steal what he can for his own hedonism. I hesitate to say that I like him... but I didn't dislike him. He's a tricksy kind of guy with (for all his seventeen years) an unpleasant family childhood, but sometimes that didn't excuse him of the way that he treated others. Or maybe, it's just that I felt a particular inclination for Erskine. Maybe I'm just biased. Erskine is by no means perfect - eh, hello, that kind of science is racist and outdated - but I'm always partial to a tortured or confused soul. There's something so simple in his search for new species, something so exciting about his discovery of the swastika, but something so lost and disappointing in his understand of his sexuality. Yes, he could be a bit of a twat, but I really like him. Beauman's acute ability to cast together such odd characters in such odd circumstances is brilliant. It's all quite bizarre, but in a way that's very readable.
The narrative moves between storylines and timelines, and there were times I wanted just to go back to Seth and Erskine. There's a huge list of characters here, and they're introduced and abandoned. There's a: Here is Tom. And here are several pages talking about his life but actually it doesn't go anywhere and doesn't seem to have anything to do with the book. Not that these little narratives weren't interesting, but the most engaging thread of Boxer, Beetle is the Sinner/Erskine plot.
Beauman tackles a lot of ground with his debut and again, there are parts I loved more than others, but it's a properly decent read, and if any of the above sounds remotely interesting, then I'd give it a go.
There's another great podcast over at the Scottish Book Talk website - click here, and listen here.
- Interestingly enough, they talk about the 'strong content' of the novel. Perhaps it's the kind of book that I read, but that never occurred to me. And, as a Sinner x Erskine fan, I think much of the visceral stuff was important. I'm never one to shy away from that kind of content and personally, I wouldn't say it was very strong at all. But I'm twisted that way in my fiction.