Whatever got lost out at sea would eventually be washed up there.

Vulgar Things, by Lee Rourke

When I was in my mid-20s I found myself for a while living in a rented room after a serious breakup. I lost my job about the same time, and then one night the flat was burgled and pretty much everything I had was stolen. I was left with little more than the clothes I was wearing while out that evening. At the time it was a bit crap, but I was young and I was lucky, and so my life fitted into a neat narrative where I took everything falling apart as a chance to take a different direction and build something better second time around.

Jon Michaels is a recently divorced editor in a small publishing house who’s laid off in the opening chapter of Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things. As he drinks to celebrate and forget, he gets a call from his brother telling him that their odd and reclusive Uncle Rey has killed himself and as the brother is too busy Jon needs to go down to Canvey Island in Essex and clear out Uncle Rey’s caravan.

Jon’s situation and my own have some broad parallels, though no more so than many other people’s stories. The opening here is a device – Rourke needs Jon in a state of breakdown where he’s looking desperately for something real to hold on to (and which he disastrously tries to find in the detritus of his uncle’s life). Still, whatever meaning books carry is as much a product of what we bring to them as what’s between their covers, so I thought the anecdote relevant. Besides, I was struggling to open this piece.


Jon makes his way to Canvey Island, an isolated spot off the Thames Estuary built from reclaimed land. It’s about 30 miles from London and apparently used to be something of a seaside resort, but those years are decades past and now it’s largely industrialised and might as well be 300 miles away. What’s extraordinary here, and what’s undoubtedly the best aspect of this novel, is quite how good Rourke is at evoking this landscape.

I’ve forgotten just how flat and eerie the island is: the idea that the land beneath my feet actually lies below sea level – the estuary looming high up behind the sea walls – becomes more worrying with every step. The sky above me, massive and grey, stretched to its limits, bears down on the island. I look over to the large oil refinery that dominates the immediate horizon to my right. There are people in hard hats over there, bobbing about, doing stuff with popes and machinery. Maybe that’s where everybody is? Working hard at the refinery.

I can hear something, off in the distance. It comes to me suddenly. There it is, the rumble of an oil tanker’s engines ahead of me out on the Thames, a constant baritone, its vibrations felt from the tip of my toes to the hair on my head, all around me, quivering on my tongue and through the fine hairs in my nostrils. There it is again, a slow, aching, constant rumbling, from somewhere within the water above, making slow progress towards Tilbury. I stop dead and listen to it pass, until it fades from my range and the tingling subsides within me.

Uncle Rey’s caravan is by the Lobster Smack, a real Canvey Island pub which is something of a local landmark. The caravan is a rundown affair piled high with pages from a manuscript Uncle Rey seems to have been working on as well as videos and DVDs forming a decades-long video diary of sorts (strongly reminiscent in form and content of Staniland’s diary in Derek Raymond’s He Died with his Eyes Open). In an adjacent shed there’s a high-end telescope. Rey seems to have spent his time gazing at the stars, struggling to write some book that never came near to being published and recording hour after hour of, well, of what exactly?

Jon meanwhile is in a near-permanent alcohol-induced fug and has become fixated on a woman he sees on Southend Pier whom he thinks needs rescuing from some uncertain “they”. What follows is a sort of confused detective story, as Jon tries both to understand the traces his uncle left behind and to track down this woman so that he can save her, whether she needs saving or not.

Rey’s manuscript, itself titled Vulgar Things, is a confused stream of consciousness attempt to somehow rewrite Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Book of Common Things, or if you prefer, Book of Vulgar Things), which I’ve not read and hadn’t heard of before reading this book. It includes allusions to some sin or crime involving Jon’s own mother who Rey apparently idealised and called his Laura (a Petrarchian reference I utterly missed). Jon takes Laura as the name for his own mystery woman, and so his life and Rey’s become muddled, both of them lonely men pouring all their frustration and desire on a woman who’s as much a creation of their need as she is a person.

What Rey was grappling with, and what of course Rourke himself is grappling with, is how to say something true on a piece of paper. Rey tried to take Petrarch’s words which spoke to him and to somehow make them current so that they were fresh again, but he failed. He wanted to say something real, and spent hour upon hour on tape and DVD-R looking for the words, but he failed in that too. Meaning and redemption both escaped him, and he wasted his years in a lonely caravan engaged on a mad project nobody would ever care about.

I wanted it to reveal everything, in a clear and beautiful language … But I failed to do that, and I’ve spent my entire life talking into this thing, because of it, trying to come to terms with it, trying to work things out, talking, talking, talking, in the hope that one day something real would appear, you know, that crystallised moment when I speak reality … I’ve waited a long time, a whole lifetime, but nothing, reality has eluded me … it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t fucking exist …

Nobody save Jon that is, who comes to realise that he was Rey’s imagined audience. Jon himself however is in little better shape than his dead uncle. He wanders the streets looking for his own Laura and becomes enmeshed with East European organised criminals who he thinks are forcing her into prostitution, though it’s quite clear to the reader that the woman he saw on the pier and the prostitute he tries to rescue are completely different women with only a passing resemblance to each other.

Jon’s mother has no voice here. All we know of her is what Jon and others remember and Uncle Rey’s rantings and digressions. The actual woman is lost from view, hidden somewhere behind Uncle Rey’s idealisation of her. Jon is similarly now denying his Laura’s reality, so blinded by his own need that he conflates different women together into one imagined whole. Early on in the book he goes to a pub where strippers perform for a few quid put in an empty beer glass. He doesn’t see it, but his unasked-for rescue is the same as watching those strippers. Either way it’s men preferring a fiction of a woman to a real one.

If that gives the impression that this is something of a novel of ideas then that’s fair. Rourke is looking here at issues of authenticity, and male gaze is one of several examples. Uncle Rey wanted to say something true, but couldn’t. He wanted to find something transcendent in his Laura, just as Jon does in his, but each instead turned a real person into an imagined one. Perhaps the irony though is that while all of that is interesting, it’s in the description and dialogue where Vulgar Things most sings to me.

There’s a rather wonderful self-undermining Wicker Man-esque quality at times to Vulgar Things. Mr Buchanan, landlord both of the Lobster Smack and of Uncle Rey’s caravan, is friendly and helpful but does he have ulterior motives? Everyone seems to know Jon’s business and Canvey Island seems a repository of nightmares and secrets, but is that just Jon’s drink-fuelled paranoia? Jon stumbles across the landscape, drunk and carrying a very solid walking stick which he’s not afraid to lash out with, and it’s hard to avoid the sense that if there’s anyone in the book you’d cross the road to avoid it’s Jon himself.

Vulgar Things isn’t always an easy book to read. Rourke’s style is intentionally flat; Jon isn’t the most sympathetic of protagonists; Uncle Rey’s sections never go on too long but even so are by their nature confused and rambling; and there’s a certain artificiality to the whole which is there to underline the issues of authenticity but can’t help distancing the reader. For all that, it’s a resonant book which brings a rather strange corner of England persuasively life and by its end I felt like I’d personally walked the streets of Canvey Island and nearby Southend, drank in their pubs and been shouted at by their needlessly aggressive locals.

The fact that the novel is an artificial construct isn’t actually as interesting as some current theorists (“cough”TomMcCarthy”cough”) seem to think. It’s always been true, and yet the novel continues. For me, Rourke’s best talents as an author are place and mood – he’s tremendous at both. Uncle Rey would argue that it’s impossible to capture reality on the page, and I suspect so would Rourke, but I’m not sure that matters when what we can capture is impressions as real as any we have in memory.

I’ll end with some pictures of Canvey Island. Here’s the Lobster Smack:


Here’s some Canvey Island caravan homes:

Canvey homes

And here’s the Canvey Island strip (beat this Blackpool):

Canvey Island strip

Other reviews

My review of Lee Rourke’s first novel, The Canal, is here. Vulgar Things doesn’t seem to have been as widely reviewed as I’d expect: there’s a rather good one by Essex native Sara Crowley on her blog here; a very interesting one which talks more of the underlying theory from Bibliokept here; and a rather negative review at the Guardian here, which I link to for a different view (the comments argue the writer missed the book’s point, but I don’t think he did – he just didn’t like it). There’s also an excellent interview with Lee Rourke at The Quietus, here. Finally, there’s a short review but with a very good dialogue quote at 3:AM magazine here.


Filed under Rourke, Lee

23 responses to “Whatever got lost out at sea would eventually be washed up there.

  1. Darn, this sounds interesting – you always know how to tempt me, Max! (Did you know I was going to name my second son Max?)

  2. Tredynas Days

    Sounds intriguing, Max. Not sure I’ll get time to read it, but it’s yet another for the tbr pile. Good to see a novel set somewhere unfashionable, unmetropolitan. Comparison to Ballard on the cover: does that seem valid to you?

  3. It’s an excellent name Marina, I recommend it! And congratulations by the way.

    It is interesting. It’s very atmospheric, and of a place I basically knew nothing about.

    Simon, it’s a more valid comparison for his first novel. Now it feels a little lazy to me, I thought this had much less of a debt to Ballard than his first. There are some similarities though in terms of a rather (intentionally) flat style. The back quotes are from Eimear McBride, Tom McCarthy and Emma Jane Unsworth.

    I should have mentioned in the piece that I got this as a review copy from Lee Rourke. I don’t think it influenced the review though.

  4. Alastair Savage

    It sounds profoundly depressing. I just can’t help feeling that life is too short to read a book like this.

  5. I didn’t find it so, but I admit it’s not the cheeriest of books. I mean, it’s an Ealing Comedy compared to the Derek Raymond I mentioned, but then dental surgery without anaesthetic is cheery compared to that book.

    Where people don’t like it I think it tends more to be for a sense of so what? Yes it’s very descriptive and evocative, but what really happens and why should we care? Those I think are fair questions, and when you go for an affectless style as Rourke does I think they’re questions you open yourself too, and so while those weren’t issues I had myself I understand why some like the Guardian reviewer found them insurmountable.

    Depressing, lots of good books are depressing, so that doesn’t worry me too much. On the other hand, if the quotes and description just sound like bleakness for its own sake then I do think it’s best avoided. Life’s too short for any book that doesn’t speak to you.

  6. Alastair Savage

    The Guardian reviewer didn’t like it much, did he? “Vulgar Things is too aimless to inspire” Speaking personally, I’m prepared to read depressing books when the author has a powerful message that they want to send to the world, such as One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich but does this novel have a message for the wider world?

  7. That’s why I linked to that. I thought he did a good job with a very constrained wordcount, and as I said above I don’t really think he missed the point, I think he just didn’t think the point was worth it.

    Does Denisovich really have much of a wider message? Other than that it’s really crap to be in a Soviet labour camp? I always preferred Cancer Ward. I think here if there is one it’s about the issue of authenticity and the problem of how a writer can capture the world in a medium which innately obscures it, but as I mention I don’t actually find that the most interesting part of the book.

    I think this would fail your powerful message test, which is fine for me since that’s not something I look for but if it is this isn’t it. Oddly, the Derek Raymond might pass that, though the message it carries isn’t one that one can easily live with (which sort of is its message, but I can’t imagine what the world would be like if Raymond’s philosophy were more widespread, ugly I suspect).

  8. I’ve always thought of Canvey Island as a rather intriguing spot, that run-down holiday resort feel along with the links to the oil industry. Also helps that I’m a Dr Feelgood fan! The sense of place seems to have been well captured here.

  9. Cathy, if you’re a Dr Feelgood fan this is something of a must-read. There’s a ton of Dr Feelgood references in here, not least the Lobster Smack which I think may be where they had their first gigs. Uncle Rey has a collection of old Dr Feelgood records which Jon listens to, and there are several other clear connections in the book. I didn’t mention them as frankly I don’t know much about Dr Feelgood so I couldn’t do them justice.

  10. Tom Cunliffe

    I rather like aimless books that wander around a bit. The dingy locations appeal too – what’s that place in Esssex which is supposed to be the last landing place of no-hopers – ah yes, Jaywick. Do a Google Image search on Jaywick and be amazed. I might get this book – it sounds just up my street.

  11. Tom Cunliffe

    Ah, it’s only £3.99 on Kindle, I’ll give it a go

  12. Sorry for the naive comment from a foreigner, but I can’t believe that Canvey Island actually exists and that the pub’s name doesn’t include the words “Crown” or “King”.
    I’m more tempted by The Canal than by this one.

  13. A very fair review, Max. The sense of place sounds great (terrific first quote), but I doubt whether this novel is for me. I think I would find Uncle Rey’s digressions less engaging than some of the other elements. That said, the Wicker Man-esq quality is rather appealing…

  14. leroyhunter

    I picked this up a few weeks ago, and think I might get to it soon.

    The Canal didn’t totally land with me, but I liked a lot about it and think of it positively now I’m reminded.

  15. A novel and a writer I’ve never heard of before now. A rather strange corner of England indeed – from the photos, the setting looks like a cleaned up version of industrial east Texas. From your description of the setting, the difference doesn’t seem all that great either. Just curious – did you dine at The Lobster Smack? I’m almost as curious to have a review of the restaurant as of the book :).

  16. Sorry for the slow reply all, pressures of work and all that.

    Tom, I did an image search of Jaywick. It looks like a setting for the UK version of The Walking Dead. Hopefully it’s nicer in reality…

    If you like aimless and dingy, this may well be worth your checking out, which I see you have. Let me know how you get on.

    Emma, I googled it when I was just a few pages into the novel. I had heard of it, but knew nothing of it and it sounded so strange. Rourke of course invents characters, situations, but not setting. Even the Lobster Smack is real, which is funny because for most of the book I assumed the name was some kind of joke.

    I think I possibly prefer The Canal, which has some marvellous lasting imagery, but this is less beholden to Ballard whether for good or bad.

    Jacqui, the Wicker Man bit shouldn’t be oversold. It gets that vibe but it’s much more in his head than in the world, and Uncle Rey’s digressions are key so you do have to engage with them (which you would of course, but if you wouldn’t enjoy doing so it’s quite a key bit to be put off by). That’s why I put in a quote from one of his bits. Have you read the Raymond I link to?

    Leroy, let me know what you think. The Canal has held up well in my memory. Rourke has some pet issues about authenticity and the author and all that, and as I (sort of) say above I don’t actually think that stuff is what’s interesting in his work. It’s his sense of anomie and of a barrier between self and experience that I think is much more interesting.

    Scott, isn’t it strange indeed? I’ve not been there, I googled the images. The book though does rave about the food at the Lobster Smack, which I assume Rourke has eaten at but then he’s an author, and they make things up. Who knows?

  17. No, I haven’t read the Raymond, although the title alone is selling it to me. I’ll add your review to my list of pieces to read (along with your Yates archive). 🙂

  18. Tom Cunliffe

    I love your comparison of Jaywick to the Walking Dead! There was a documentary on it on Channel 5 not so long ago – I couldn’t resist taking a look at it in much the same way others watch films about Zombies. I am reading the book now and enjoying it – a not terribly demanding read which makes a nice change.

  19. Glad you’re enjoying it Tom. Do let me know your thoughts once you’ve finished.

  20. Pingback: Review: Vulgar Things – Lee Rourke | A Common Reader

  21. Tom Cunliffe

    Thanks Max – Finished it now – very intriguing with much to think about. http://acommonreader.org/2015/12/08/review-vulgar-things-lee-rourke/

  22. Thanks Tom. I’ll leave my comment at yours.

  23. Pingback: (events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now) | Pechorin's Journal

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