Can a romp be melancholy? Can a picaresque be told in deadpan? Owen Booth’s 2018 debut What We’re Teaching Our Sons – a short story collection masquerading as a novel, unless it was the other way around – introduced to a wider readership the author’s facility for eliding comedy with no-frills mid-life heartbreak. The splendid Daniel Bones goes much further, does far more, plays more tunes on more instruments, but retains Booth’s signature mournfulness, underneath the transcontinental high-jinks and period get-up.
The All True Adventures… is set in the 1880s, but in structure and often in spirit it seems to belong to the century foregoing: young Daniel Bones, shanghaied into leaving his grim edge-of-the-world Essex village to embark on a ramshackle Grand Tour with a rogueish, double-dealing mentor, might be a Smollett hero, a Humphry Clinker or a Peregrine Pickle, souped up and given a more streetwise edge. ‘Captain’ Clarke B is the adventurer who, in a bid to market his all-purpose flotation suit, takes to the waterways of Europe, Bones the long-suffering assistant (‘What happened to the last one?’ acquaintances of the Captain ask) who follows literally in his wake, doomed to have remarkable, regrettable things happen to him, one after another.
Bones is tethered to his tragi-comically bleak home town by a younger brother, left behind to endure what is left of his childhood in the company of their brutish blacksmith father. This is the novel’s emotional core (the bond between the boys, both old before their time, is brought home movingly through the motif of three lead soldiers – the only possessions of the younger Bones, save ‘shoes, a winter coat, pencils, [and] two knives’). Coupled with the far-seeing sorrowfulness that rises at times like a minor note in Bones’s frank, practical narrative, it serves the story as an emotional counterweight – needed to prevent the story of Bones and the Captain simply running away with itself in a clatter of rich comedy, preposterous adventure and occasional stark brutality.
This is a novel that might at times seem silly if it weren’t so much fun, and if Booth were a less astute judge of tone and texture. There are castles with princesses. There is an escaped ape and a volcano, a pig rescue and a trip down a sewer. There are orgies with aristocrats and there are irate jealous husbands. Booth’s handling of all this is next to flawless. There’s also a lot of sex: this is unsurprising in a romp, but what’s surprising is how sexy it is. The intensity of Bones’s relationship with an Italian street lad creeps up on the reader; a scene in which the hard-done-by pair compare scars takes the breath away. And there’s something very dark and hard in the novel that we’re never quite allowed to forget about, however rambunctious the surface goings-on. Thugs, arms traders, robbers, murderers. Daniel Bones moves through a monstrous world.
Booth has a quality that is often overlooked in criticism outside of genre fiction: he is marvellously good at making things up. He doesn’t take a lot of risks as a prose stylist but his compulsive ingenuity – not inappropriately, in a novel about liars and inventors – means that he is always able to produce the flourish of new detail that both cranks the scope of the novel a little wider and adds to the stirring sense of amplitude. His characters benefit too: the leads – Captain B the blustering showman; the canny Widow Timmermans; elusive, volatile Andrea – are familiar from the picaresque repertory but elevated by Booth’s deftly applied grace-notes. Daniel Bones himself, meanwhile, is a truly wonderful creation, a young man made of aches and hopes, manipulated and imperilled and more often acted-upon than acting, bone-dry, knife-sharp, pragmatic, downbeat, resilient and sometimes wise (and sometimes not) – Bones is a character of such substance, such emotional presence, and yet in a lot of ways such simplicity, that one finds oneself puzzling over how exactly Booth has done this (perhaps not for the first time, such is this novelist’s capacity to do good by stealth).
The All True Adventures (and Rare Education) of the Daredevil Daniel Bones is a novel that surprised me first by existing (‘a Peregrine Pickle for our times’ does not sound like an easy sell) and then by being not only funny – and it is very funny – but also strangely, desperately moving.