We Have to Stop Being Fearful: Paul Kavanagh’s Iceberg

Charles Haddox

Iceberg CoverStorytelling, is, and always will be, the heart of the novel.  In spite of the despair expressed by writers like Barthelme and Gass over the impossibility of using language to articulate a semblance of the external world in the form of plot and characterization, seeing the written word itself from their point of view as nothing more than artifice and conflict, the reader at large continues to demand the Story, with a capital S.  This straining for some new magical element that can supersede storytelling as the basis of the novel, which takes on a number of forms that include attempts to create a new ontological metaphor, a reliance on structural complexity, or sheer impenetrability in the realm of language and imagery, has helped to make contemporary “literary writers,” for the most part, a particularly joyless lot.  Along comes a Paul Kavanagh, and the balance is restored, the delight in both language and storytelling is returned to the reader by a captivating high-wire act called Iceberg.

In a grim Northern town in England, Don, an unsuccessful painter, and Phoebe, an unsuccessful novelist, live in a state of slow suffocation.  Kavanagh, whose fiction specializes in the misshapen, captures the corrosion and claustrophobia of a failing small town in all its hopelessness.  He also paints a series of portraits of the monsters and misfits who inhabit the town, people who have been slowly poisoned by the rusty water, the mold and despair.  There is Don’s landlord, a parasite with a tattoo of a rabid dog on his neck.  The dog appears to bark when he laughs.  The library where Phoebe works is populated by sleeping derelicts, and her own forgotten novel isn’t even found on its shelves.  In this world where Don and Phoebe seem destined to be ground out by poverty and abandonment, dreams alone sustain them; dreams of London (which neither has ever visited), and dreams of travel and adventure.

Their dreams finally begin to come true when Phoebe wins an iceberg in a lottery scam.  This change of fortune emboldens them into taking money from those who have abused their fearfulness and timidity for years, and begin a journey to Antarctica via Africa where they can claim their prize.  Their journey, and a voyage aboard the iceberg, allow us to experience a world of questionable adventures; of rascals and beautiful losers, who teach us and them it was their own fear of life and their own fear of death that was causing them to suffocate in the dank Northern town.  They meet Youssef, a Tunisian who gives them a lift and asks for a volume of Proust in return.  Emilio, a Bubi fisherman, shares strange pearls of wisdom with Phoebe and Don.  “Work is good for the soul, and we have two soles so we must work double hard.”  “The sea does not drown man; man drowns in the sea.”  As they experience the kaleidoscope of life, with their newfound freedom the instrument that transforms even the dark and grotesque into beauty, they discover, and help to remind the reader, that there is another way of living: outside the routine.

Kavanagh has packed a whole world of moods and landscapes, not to mention a rogue’s gallery of wonderfully drawn characters, into a mere 116 pages.  In spite of its brevity, this book feels like a novel, not a novella.  Although each episode of our hero and heroine’s journey is brief, all leave an indelible image in the mind of the reader.  Iceberg is an adventure story, but the adventure is simply the unfolding of life and imagination.


Iceberg
By Paul Kavanagh
Honest Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9571427-0-1



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