Tom Sharpe died the week before last. I suppose that there are some out there who are just as happy to see the back of him. His work was emphatically not for every taste, and I’m certain that he ruffled a few feathers back in the day.
For me, it’s another one of those sad milestones. The ground slipping away under my feet. It’s not as severe a blow as when we lost Roberston Davies or Kurt Vonnegut — both of those men were still working at the time of their deaths, and had not faltered in their craft — but it’s a stinging blow nonetheless.
Years ago I wrote a couple of paragraphs about Sharpe as part of an article for The Cortland Review. Here’s what I had to say way back then:
Caustic humor is a long and noble British tradition. What sets Tom Sharpe ahead of the pack is not the depth of his perversion (which is deep enough) or the sheer volume of comic mayhem that he can squeeze into two hundred pages, but that he can make you laugh out loud at the most appalling things, and keep you coming back for more.
Part of his secret is that the stories are laced with Awful Truth. It’s hard to conceive that a writer who uses penis mutilation as a recurring motif and whose characters habitually cavort in rubber rooms and sex-toy factories might have something important to say. Sharpe is driven by a deep-seated anger at the system, and it’s the anger that powers the black extremes of his humor.
The other part of his secret is harder to express in a short recommendation: because, yes, the books are charming in a sick adult sort of way, and this charm of style seldom fails even when Sharpe is describing (in his South African series Indecent Exposure and Riotous Assembly) the efforts of white Afrikaners to eliminate black Africans by raping black women, or (in The Throwback) the efforts of a young man to hang onto his inheritance by having his dead grandfather stuffed and wired for sound. Look, I don’t expect you to believe me: read the books and find out for yourselves. Reading Tom Sharpe is a test of character — try him and see if you pass.
Although I didn’t know it then, Sharpe was already past his prime. He had fallen into what became nearly a fifteen-year-long stretch of literary silence, and by the time he returned (with The Midden in 1996), it was pretty well obvious that something was missing.
The man wasn’t angry anymore. He had mellowed with age, or something; bereft of the anger, his books seemed just to go through the motions. They weren’t bad by any means… but there isn’t a single one of his later books that you would shove under a person’s nose and say to them, “You have got to read this!”
In that regard, I came to regard Sharpe as one of my own personal literary successes. With, as I now see, Asperger’s crippling my social skills, Sharpe became one of those subjects that I could talk about, that I could evangelize, and he was one of those occasions where my friends listened. I’ve created some converts to Sharpe in my time. Well — it was almost inevitable: put The Throwback into someone’s hands and it will produce a reaction.
My favorite among his novels is still, and I guess always will be, The Great Pursuit. Far less extreme than some of his other books (and consequently less laugh-out-loud funny), this was the Moment in Time where I became convinced that Sharpe was a Major Novelist who cloaked his depths in dirty jokes. It was the novel in which Sharpe turned his anger specifically on the publishing industry, sparing no one: not the illiterate businessmen who publish the books, not the agents who cynically package the product, not the writers with, alternately, their lofty goals and ideals on the one hand or pandering on the other; and certainly not the readers who consume the final product. The incestuous nature of the business is reflected when the novel comes around full circle with revelations that indicate guilt within even the most Platonic teachers of the craft.
Frensic, the focal character of The Great Pursuit, is one of the great characters of English Literature: half Dickens, half Python, and all Sharpe, wrapped in smug-self-confidence concealing a wellspring of disappointment and disillusionment.
I came upon Sharpe at an age when I was still susceptible to literary bombshells: when the discovery of a writer who opened doors in my mind and did things that no one else could do was still capable of altering my DNA for life. Faulkner, Chandler, Davies, Alasdair Gray, Vonnegut and Sharpe… they all showed me things that no one else even attempted. They all ignited sparks inside my brain.
Of them all, only Alasdair Gray is left, and he’s not working much anymore… by his own admission, he is “written out.” As was Sharpe, when Vintage Stuff proved that he was running out of things to be angry about. No candle can burn that brightly forever and ever, except in the best work that it leaves behind.
So addictive is Tom Sharpe’s “voice” that I attempted Sharpe-esque situations in some of my own writing, only to realize that I had none of the qualities to make it work and that my own voice would have to be found somewhere else.
But oh, how well and how happily I remember standing in that now-defunct Maine Mall bookstore and coming across Sharpe for the first time. Vintage was his American publisher then, and the books promised much. I remember picking up The Throwback, and Wilt, and The Wilt Alternative, studying each one, and thinking to myself:
“These look wild. Do I dare?”