Stewart Lee Press

Stewart Lee - "The Perfect Fool" - Review by Hermaphrodite Fanzine

The Perfect Fool’ is the comedian Stewart Lee’s first novel.
In honour of my receiving an advance copy, I am here going to review it in a manner which suggests enthusiastic bias.
And which is riddled with as many clichés from The Big Book Of Lazy Journalism as is possible before my head starts revolving from the strain of it all… Like Bill Bryson… on Acid! Like Jack Kerouac… on E! Like Geoffrey of Monmouth… on Smack! Like Joseph Campbell… on Speed! Like Bronislaw Malinowski… on Steroids!

From the sticky-floored kebab-houses of Streatham, to the arid wilds of Arizona, this is a Quest Tale with a modern inversion – though all are searching, the Holy Grail is only the obsession of a secretive few. Most just need to find themselves. And then maybe the way to the bar… Like Ken Kesey… on Viagra! Like the Gospel Writers… on Prozac! Like Margaret Meade… on Growth Hormones! Like Claude Levi-Strauss… on Ribena (Which Has A Very High Sugar Content You Know)! Like Sister Wendy… on the piss!

Two men incapable of holding down a job in a Dire Straits covers band, a Black Widow woman with a porn past so shocking her lovers choose to commit suicide than think on it, and an amnesiac haunted by a love for the stars and dreams of the Sangreal. Guided by a one-time acid-rock legend (since fried by electricity & peyote as he once fried the minds of others), and a shamanistic Hopi clown who’d wear his loin cloth and body-paint in public more often but jeans don’t attract wolf-whistles in the same way.
Chased by a red-neck bigot armed with Christian zeal and a Sheriff’s gun, a shadowy Hampstead Freemason with a predilection for tea and dribbly common come-ons… and, most shockingly of all, their own past.
As well as assorted trigger-happy priests, mental patients with a mission, and farmyard extras. All seem to be both Running From and Looking To (particularly the farmyard extras), all the while clinging to their own history, even if that’s not where their power comes from. (Particularly not in the cases of those Americans descended from the Cardiff Irish…)

Like Tennyson… on Drugs (That I Can’t Define Cos I’ve Never Taken Any But That Doesn’t Really Matter – They All Make You Go A Bit Funny, Don’t They?)
Lee doesn’t just tell a story, he weaves it, drawing the reader inexorably on. And in. Every seemingly disparate strand ties in with the others, pulling all comers into the one multi-layered tale seemingly orchestrated by a higher power. Which could be God, Fate, or even the Hopi lore binding people into each other… or even, well, just a tidy-minded author. It’s nice to see the hero myth (quest tale) get a dusting off for a modern audience. (Without inclusion of any offensively stupid long-eared Jamaican twats, ‘comically’ incapable of talking in a coherent sentence without sounding as though they learned their English from a muppet pretending to be a foreign waiter.)

And there’s also pleasure to be had in that he’s not just telling a story for the sake of telling a story; there are messages in there, as well as natty use of adjectives. (‘Eat moon dust Sean Hughes’… and, er, so on…) A laugh-out-loud novel. This is indeed a laugh-out-loud novel. Literally. I know, as I kept a tally-chart. (It clocked up a Pratchett-worthy 30 times.) One of those pesky ones you oughtn’t to read on the Tube because you’ll end up disgracing yourselves with a snorting giggle fit. Or worse. As ‘The Perfect Fool’ is also a gurn out-loud novel. And a grimace-out-loud novel. The squeamishly minded should here be warned that the death count takes in several humans (none of whom wear bras), a toad, a white bird, an Alsatian, a space-dog (though Laika, admittedly, was not Lee’s fault), and many curly-tailed squealers whose trip to the sausage factory will come earlier’n planned.

There is also that Sex With Pig While Dressed As Nun thing. But I think the Urgh-value of that dissipates on 2nd reading. (The Streatham covers band though… still nasty.)
Like ‘Thelma And Louise’ meets ‘The Sword In The Stone’… on Cocaine! Like ‘Easy Rider’ meets ‘The X-Files’… on a Red Bull ‘n’ Benylin speed-ball! Like ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ meets ‘Dragonheart’… on Laughing Gas!
I could also gush at you that it ‘Should do for Church Attendance What ‘The Exorcist’ Did. Just With Less Fear. And More Trips To Glastonbury’. God can never be too far away in a book about the Grail, itself an object which physically proves the existence of Jesus. And all this from a man whom I seem to recall once saying that for Christmas he’d be fashioning his Nativity scene from vegetables, and biro scrawling I Do Not Exist across the carbohydrate-rich skin of his potato Christ.

Yet this is a book which comments on humanity’s incomplete adoption of the teachings of the Bible, and the ways to express your Faith… while also juxtaposing the holiest of searches with a far baser inner-devil-driven one. In ‘The Perfect Fool’s brotherly love / equality element (brought home by logic, humour, and the hidden weapon of religion), as well as the caustic side-swipes at human foibles/fallibity, I can see hints of a Lenny Bruce ideology. Which is a lineage (& message) to be proud of.

Like ‘Independence Day’ meets ‘Casino’ with that Indian guy from ‘Poltergeist 2’… on Moonshine! Like ‘Indianna Jones’ meets ‘Dances With Wolves’… on Really Scary Hallucinogens That Make, Like, Peas Come Out Of Your Face! Like ‘Twelve Monkeys’ meets ‘Fear And Loathing Las Vegas’… high on the juicy goodness that is life!

Stewart Lee’s first book doesn’t betray him. Although it reads like the work of a comedian – attention-snaring narrative and jokes a-plenty – it doesn’t scream First Novel. As some do. Neither does it draw overt attention to its author’s stand-up career – despite the number of references to the sky, Lee manages to avoid ‘moon on a stick’ territory, although I did spot a ‘that’s right – look impressed’, and a bit of knowing irony about those late-night programmes that are just 2 blokes on a sofa being sarcastic about old films ‘n’ telly ‘n’ stuff. The stand-up’s deft love of language is, however, redolent throughout - I particularly liked the phrase ‘relentless bovine symmetry’ (p106), the ‘Toby Jug body’ (p27), the ‘paella mouthed accent’ (p40), and the apt utilisation of the word ‘slurry’ (p10). The strength of the writing should mean he escapes the comparison bracket of other Comedian-Turned-Novelists, and manage to stand against other (real?!) authors.

Though the comparisons are compulsive… Thusly… ‘The Perfect Fool’ makes a lot more sense than Rob Newman’s first novel (and is thankfully less riddled with overt references to the Laughing Gnome). It has both depth & humour – and so can compare favourably to Ardal O’Hanlon’s excellent debut. And it feels less disconcertingly autobiographical (and concerned with ‘chicken’) ‘n Scott Capurro’s; apart from the ‘record fair stall-holder knowing your name’ element… There are also far fewer references to The Tindersticks (i.e. none) than Sean Hughes’ first un did, which should also help avoid any pesky parallels being drawn… Should do for Arizona what ‘Trainspotting’ did for Scotland’s skag dens. Should do for the Freemasons what ‘Pulp Fiction’ did for John Travolta’s career.

Should do for Lee’s literary rise what a) Guy Fawkes wanted to do to Parliament, b) ‘Gone With The Wind’ did for Vivien Leigh, or c) ‘Withnail & I’ did for the popularity of carrots.
Further incentives – as though t’were needed – can be found in that the book features a sex scene which leans towards the anatomically informative rather than lascivious, its colour scheme is perfect for a Leeds Utd. fan, and it washes away the haunting cackle of Tim Curry’s IT by making the best use of clowns ever to be found in a novel. (Even the Klu-Klax clown was funny. And that’s a doubly hard task…) There’s also that I finished the book with a very large grin (for the sake of the ending, not my having reached it), muttering Hannibal-isms about appreciating plans coming together. A book that leaves you smiling, and with your thinking machinery better oiled – bet you’d buy it for that even I didn’t tell you page 114 features a commendable use of the word ‘fuckwit’…

And as of this Sunday afternoon, where the book was given priority over all else, I can tell you will absolute certainty that to do so was: Better than watching the ‘Mighty Ducks 3’! ‘The Perfect Fool’ will be available for purchase from July. 4th Estate

Source - Hermaphrodite Fanzine