Whisky & Culture

How black can black be? Blacker...

This issue Jefferson Chase on Terence Blacker's bleak novel 'Kill your Darlings'
By Jefferson Chase
Literature, as anyone involved with the production side knows, is a nasty business. The act of writing encourages an unsavoury mix of insecurity, solipsism, arrogance and obsession that sends many a scribe reaching regularly for a bottle. And the act of profiting from writing yields a host of characters grotesque enough for Thackeray or Swift: the Agent, the Editor, the Publicist and, perhaps worst of all, the Celebrity Author.Which brings us to Terence Blacker’s Kill Your Darlings. The title refers to a piece of advice always passed to novice fiction writers – i.e. don’t fall in love with your characters. No chance of that here. Blacker got his start writing books for young people, a genre held in smug contempt by those who see themselves as higher up in the literary feeding chain. Darlings reads like Blacker’s revenge on those who might have looked down upon him.The story is told from the perspective of Gregory Keays, a former rising star of the 1960s British book scene reduced to teaching creative writing at a London community college. Contemptuous of his students, despite suffering himself from a 15-year-long case of writer’s block, Keyes seizes upon one of his charges, Peter Gibson, whom he suspects might have some talent.He invites him out for a drink at a wine bar.As we entered we were buffeted by the sound of fake, end-of-day merriment, by office workers clucking with gossip and excitement like battery hens at feeding time, the din punctuated occasionally by the plaintive, insistent call of mobile telephones... Peter seemed to be almost cowering, shoulders hunched, his hair falling girlishly across his face. I found us a table and... he surprised me by ordering a whisky. I ordered him a double.As it turns out, Gibson does have talent, loads of it, as well as a big-time crush on his seemingly avuncular instructor Gloucester. But Keays’ heart isn’t in it when Gibson presses him to continue their pas de deux.A knot of rage tightened in the pit of my stomach. I was not unused to this kind of scene but somehow enacting it with a man seemed absurd and humiliating. I cursed myself for the writerly vulnerability which had drawn me to my student’s bedroom the previous night...‘I’ll see you in class on Thursday,’ I said. ‘Maybe you could bring some of [your] novel to read.’ ‘Writerly’... the sort of word only a professional blowhard could love.Heartbroken, Gibson commits suicide, and that spells the end of Keays’ writer’s block insofar as it leaves him, courtesy of the deceased, with a finished novel manuscript to flog on the market. All that’s left for him to do is to come up with a suitably pretentious title, Terpsichore 4:2, and wait for the hyenas to howl.One of the first to do so is Keays’ previously disinterested agent.To my surprise, I was not required to sit for the statutory ten minutes in the reception room decorated tauntingly with flattering, smug photographic portraits of the more eminent authors... Within a second of her assistant putting his head around her door and announcing my arrival, Fay had terminated a call in characteristic manner – ‘Now f*** off, darling, someone important’s arrived...’.Another success story that started with a glass of whisky.Interestingly, what first seems to be Kill Your Darlings’ central flaw – the almost insufferably pompous tone of its narrator/main character – emerges as a strength.As the circles of loathsome miscreants close in on ‘his’ novel, you can’t help relish the prospect that anyone as haughty as Gregory Keays is due for a major comeuppance.Blacker has pulled off a neat trick here: a mean-spirited satire about a nasty business that’s on the mark and a whole lot of fun to read.