American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, by Iain Sinclair, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20, 320 pages
Iain Sinclair is now 70 but age hasn’t slowed him down at all. Last year he embarked on a quixotic journey from Hastings to Hackney on a swan-shaped pedalo with the film-maker Andrew Kötting, tracing contested waterways and the exclusion zone of the Olympic Park along the way. Swandown, the haunting, absurdist film they made of the journey, forms one of the subtexts of American Smoke, the latest of his more than 30 books.
Sinclair is best known as a walker, as the grand inquisitor of London psychogeography. “In a way I’ve allowed myself to become this London brand,” he said in an interview a decade ago. “I’ve become a hack on my own mythology, which fascinates me. From there on in you can either go with it or subvert it.” American Smoke is part subversion, part return to origins. It’s a book about the Beats, an urban exploration and a road trip documenting encounters with ageing poets living in Thoreau-esque isolation. In the land of the car, Sinclair’s pedestrianism is tested – “A walk? Awesome” remarks a concierge as he leaves his hotel for a dérive around Hollywood.
The method is familiar by now. Journeys are made through landscapes and archives, conversations transcribed into notebooks and sutured into taut, endlessly fertile prose. “I’ve always been fascinated by pests like Thomas De Quincey,” he writes, “the way he hiked to the Lake District and attached himself to Wordsworth and Coleridge, before ‘betraying’ them with gossip and mangled histories.” On his own literary pilgrimage Sinclair meditates on writers including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Roberto Bolaño, William Gibson, and the Black Mountain poets Charles Olson, Ed Dorn and Gary Snyder.
Sinclair has always channelled his books through veiled versions of himself but American Smoke feels more confessional than usual. He writes about reading Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet as a student, and exchanging airmail correspondence with William Burroughs in Tangiers. He recalls discovering the Beats: “Kerouac was my main man: those bad journeys, the questing, the tedium, and the mortal tremor beneath the surface, which I had not then identified.” We read about Anna, Sinclair’s wife, and about his Welsh upbringing and the early death of a sister. “Biography is a road map that only makes sense with the death of the subject, the writer,” he says.
Cinema, too, is an ongoing concern, appropriate to a land constructed by and through the lens. Sinclair’s references are often surprisingly popular. Alongside the high seriousness of JH Prynne and Francis Alÿs we’re offered unexpected vignettes on Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. There’s a funny riff on the Twilight saga, and a wonderful moment when Cal Shutter, “the last American poet” and a football obsessive, plays him clips of Wayne Rooney’s goals while giving a running commentary.
It’s also a quest for stylistic origins – those terse sentences, non-committal but always generous, which Sinclair has honed to a point over the years. They’re easy to do badly; impossible to do as well as him. Poetry lies close to the surface. Woodpeckers “grind like hand-cranked drills performing prefrontal lobotomies. Smog-coloured squirrels chase their unnecessary tails.” The imagined death of the poet Malcolm Lowry in a room in Ripe, “Stravinsky’s savage rite swelling and fading” in the background, is extraordinarily moving.
Sinclair is conscious of literary mortality. “The work loses its potent illusion of edge and discovery, but it continues in Beckettian absurdity … Memories sag, narratives sprawl, comfortably, like a drinker’s belly when the muscles have gone. Eyes fail. Voice rasps on.” In American Smoke his voice is still urgent; it still has things to tell us. If we know what’s good for us, we’ll listen.