1) The Compromise by Sergei Dovlatov trans Anne Frydman (1983)
2) 3) 4) Dogtown (1991), Soultown (1996), Ghosttown (2007) by Mercedes Lambert
5) Pocket Money by Gordon Burn (1987)
1) ‘The Compromise’ by Sergei Dovlatov trans Anne Frydman (1983)
‘’A MAN CONDEMNED TO HAPPINESS’…Maybe we’ll use it as a headline!’ Turonok, editor of Sovetskaja Estonija (Soviet Estonia), suggests delightedly to Russian journalist, Sergei Dovlatov. It is 1975, the anniversary of Tallin’s liberation. The city’s four hundred thousandth citizen is conveniently due to be born. Dovlatov must pen the rousing write-up, but first find a suitable baby.
This fifth ‘Compromise’, like the other 11, opens with a concise, Soviet-patriotic article written by Dovlatov for a Soviet Estonian newspaper. The ‘true’ story behind the state-sanctioned one is revealed beneath, plainly exposing deceptions, and drink.
In Dovlatov’s hands, absurd media assignments and rules (countries are written in exemplary order. Turonok nags, ‘Hungary goes third! There was an uprising!’), posing superiors, trying interviewees, make dark, sharp comedy. ‘Compromises’ of those stuck in this stifling environment are described with understanding. Loosened pages fell out my copy- hopefully from past, deserved, frantic re-readings…
Unable to get published in the USSR, Dovlatov emigrated to America in 1979. He has posthumously been celebrated in Russia, captured in a statue on Rubenstein Street, St Petersburg. Unveiled on 2016’s ‘Dovlatov Memorial Day’, after years of arguments on the choicest spot- he would have made a terrific tale of it.
2) 3) 4) ‘Dogtown’ (1991), ‘Soultown’ (1996), ‘Ghosttown’ (2007) by Mercedes Lambert
The reader of the distinctive ‘Whitney Logan’ mysteries would likely try to investigate their author, Mercedes Lambert. The name yields scant useful Google results, bar a dated-looking, palm tree fringed website which bears this pseudonym and her real name, Douglas Ann Munson. Under the ‘Press’ section, six newspaper clippings provide evidence on Munson’s too-short life.
Dogtown begins the ‘-town’ series. Logan, an idealistic Law graduate, estranged from ‘Town and Country’ reading parents, sets up practice in a decrepit office on LA’s Hollywood Boulevard. A well-dressed and fine-smelling woman puts her on the case of her missing Salvadorian maid; a story that soon stinks. Logan’s compelling, series-enduring partnership with shrewd Lupe Ramos, a Chicana who works the Boulevard, begins.
Munson’s own background as a dependency lawyer in the Los Angeles County Court informs the series. Most striking is her conjuring of the disaster-prone, traffic-jammed city. Its subcultures, tensions, the battered Old Hollywood remnants. Koreatown, reeling from the 1992 LA riots, is intently, atmospherically explored in 1996’s Soultown.
The clippings indicate a rising star, but follow-up Ghosttown would be repeatedly rejected by her publisher. Centred on the murder of a Native American woman, its brilliant, ambiguous ‘supernatural’ ending was considered too aberrant. So was the increasingly jaded, Southern Comfort-swigging Logan, though it seems an accurate development. Munson’s disgust at the abuses encountered in her own court work is evident.
Despondent, Munson quit her job, stopped the revisions. She would become homeless and die from cancer aged 55. Ghost-Town was later resurrected by friend, Lucas Crown, and published to deserved plaudits, ‘ahead of its time’ lamentations. The series ends- or remains-with the valley’s lights ‘pulsing in frozen gasps.’
5) Pocket Money by Gordon Burn (1987)
‘Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”
-‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe, Pot Black
‘Pot Black’, the BBC2 snooker tournament show, launched in 1969 to cheaply flaunt colour transmission.
Snooker’s subsequent popularisation was confirmed by 1985’s TV-ratings-topping Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor World Championship final. Burn captures the game’s contenders and clashes with a typically acute eye in this outstanding account of the heady ’86 ‘honeymoon’ season.
Barry Hearn, the ‘People’s Promoter’ has welcomed Taylor into his slick Matchroom operation, grooming him alongside Davis (indeed, with sponsor Goya’s international fragrance ‘Matchroom’). Unmarketable, scandal-stalked players like Alex Higgins, offer unpredictable competition on and off the table. That year, the Higgins-led ‘Four Away’ cover of ‘The Wanderer’ made a defiant alternative to ‘Snooker Loopy’ by The Matchroom Mob with Chas & Dave.
Burn rigorously traces the boom’s shockwaves, leaves portents. The old guard of the WPBSA (World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association) recoiling. Matchroom’s tendrils reaching Hong Kong and China.
‘Pot Black’ was pulled in ‘86. But snooker suited a studio setting and ‘Pot Black’ returned as the more rambunctious, quiz-y ‘Big Break’. The BBC1 snooker gameshow presented by John Virgo and Jim Davidson aired between 1991-2002.
Cue for another 2020 highlight – ‘Big Break Remake’ by Swedish Magazines. This stunning snooker-single slyly pondered a bargain BBC bid for lost viewers, following a spate of vintage light entertainment resurrections (‘Family Fortunes’, ‘Supermarket Sweep’, ‘Are you being served?’).
Time has not been kind to the Big Break set. There’s asbestos in the roof and a hornet’s nest in the wall.