Reviews

Pravda by Edward Docx

David Pullar

The odd mixture of cowardice and courage in all of us, the curious ties of family and genetics, and the eternal quest for significance are all contained within this novel.


Pravda

Publisher: Mariner
Subtitle: A Novel
Author: Edward Docx
Price: $13.95
Length: 400
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0618534407
US publication date: 2008-03
Amazon

Twin siblings, a dead Russian mother, an estranged father, a long-lost brother, an expat heroin addict -- with Pravda, young British writer Edward Docx has taken these ingredients and concocted an impressive and moving narrative of failure and family.

Spanning New York, London, Paris and St Petersburg, Pravda tells of Gabriel and Isabella Glover, two moderately successful 30-something Brits, dealing with the death of their mother, Masha, a Soviet-era defector who had returned home following the end of the Cold War. This tragedy forces them to reassess their own lives and the continuing impact of their family’s past, in particular the monstrous figures of their father and grandfather.

To complicate matters, Docx sets in motion the story of Arkady Artamentov, probably Masha’s long-abandoned Russian son, who seeks to make contact with his newly discovered relatives. Artamentov is a ferociously talented pianist and part-time hoodlum, sort of a Russian parallel to Harvey Keitel’s character in the movie Fingers. Spurred on by his friend, the Englishman-in-exile and heroin addict, Henry, Arkady works his way through the post-Soviet Petersburg underworld in search of the visa that will take him to his relatives and (hopefully) the money that will help establish his musical career.

While this may sound complicated and overwhelming (and the book is not a short read), Pravda never flounders into incoherence. In fact, the prose is so fluid and the characters so well-constructed, that it holds together tightly and moves at thriller-like speed.

This, Docx’s second novel, gained some favourable attention when it was first published (as Self Help) in the UK last year, including a long-listing for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. This is with good reason, because it an outstanding contribution to the family-with-a-past genre.

A common failing in family novels is the subordination of actual realism to a kind of gritty hyper-realism; wherein true family characters and dynamics give way to an ensemble of characters with broadly-drawn quirks and idiosyncrasies. Docx’s characters are troubled and off-beat -- being variously afflicted with disease, romantic strife and addiction -- but these aspects never feel forced or simplistic. Each character is more than the sum of their troubles and failings and each defies easy synopsis.

A reasonable comparison would be to another recent family novel, Gerard Woodward’s gripping tale of familial alcoholism, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon, wherein the characters are rarely more than the animals that drinking makes them. If less hard-hitting, Pravda is a good deal easier to relate to.

Take the pivotal role of Nicholas, the father of the dysfunctional Glover clan. While a manipulator, a philanderer, and a bully, Nicholas’ charm and humanity are still apparent. In fact, he is so sympathetically drawn at times that the towering brute of Isabella and Gabriel’s memories seems hard to comprehend. He’s no angel, for certain, but he is a believable brute, rather than a cartoon villain.

Equally, the Glover twins are immature, volatile, and confused in exactly the way many middle-class Westerners are. They are also frequently charming and loyal and it is this contradictory combination of the good and the bad that is so plausible. While the twins may be difficult to like at times, it’s hard to escape the fact that you probably have friends (or siblings) very similar to these.

Surprisingly, the most sympathetic character is not even a member of the central family: it’s Henry, the failed English teacher blowing his dwindling inheritance on junk. His self-sacrificing friendship with Arkady, his self-deluding efforts to end his dependence on heroin and his growing self-awareness -- these are all fearlessly portrayed by Docx. Pravda never veers into squalor tourism or reader manipulation. Rather, it’s an honest and humane character study. The acknowledgements at the book’s conclusion show Docx’s intention to avoid the misconceptions about addiction and the extent of his research into the lives of addicts. It is certainly one of the book’s most striking achievements.

Also living and breathing throughout the book are the vividly drawn cities. Docx’s love/hate relationships with London, Paris, New York and St Petersburg are apparent in his lively, descriptive prose. Even the Russian criminal underground, so ripe for exaggeration and unreality, is depicted clearly and plausibly. The Russian’s eye view of London -- all jumbled architecture and extortionate prices -- is also a joy and particularly notable for having been written by an English native.

Docx has a keenly observant eye and rich gift for description. If his metaphors and similes are sometimes slightly clumsy or ridiculous, it’s mostly because there are so many of them. Perhaps his future novels should tone down some of the descriptions and seek a better balance between spare and purple prose. It would be the aspect in need of correction.

The language is, of course, only part of the package and Pravda’s real strength lies in the vivid human drama it creates. The odd mixture of cowardice and courage in all of us, the curious ties of family and genetics and the eternal quest for significance are all contained within this novel. Docx exhibits masterful control over his key characters, drawing them towards the powerful final sequences and a twist ending that few readers will predict.

Cheap thrillers often juggle many storylines and locales with ease and literary novels frequently create rich characters – here, Docx has managed to do it all.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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