A quick break from National Regina Week for a review of The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes, apparently a former teacher at KGV or some such school. The hard-to-forget title proved its worth when I saw this in the IFC Mall branch of Dymocks last week and recalled an email strongly urging me to read it. It is, in brief, what a Hong Kong expat novel would be like if Tom Sharpe wrote it: a farce in which an innocent abroad gets himself into an appalling and ludicrous mess.
Other than the eye-catching title, the book cover does the novel no favours by omitting any meaningful blurb about the content. It helps to know that Neil Diamond is one of the uncoolest of the great Sixties-era songwriters, penning a string of major catchy hits for various artists and becoming ever-less trendy with age while still performing to his loyal and mature easy-listening audience.
Aside from serving as a refreshingly seedy setting for a bizarre romp, Hong Kong’s contribution to the story is the theme of self-reinvention. Antihero Neil Atherton is a British former folk musician pushing 50 who has come here when his wife gets a high-flying job. While he bums around singing classics like Sweet Caroline in karaoke bars, she eagerly embraces a new identity and corporate lifestyle. When he dyes his hair after grubby empresario Elbert Chan offers him a job impersonating Diamond in clubs, she kicks him out. Like his namesake standing by the side of the road troubadour-style on an album cover, Neil trudges off with his guitar from the comforts of Shatin to find cheap lodgings in Tsimshatsui.
Chan – a finely drawn shyster we’ve all met before – entices the penniless Neil with his vision of an award-winning show comprising multiple acts covering yesteryear’s major stars; a faux Petula Clark has already been lined up. But Chan is clearly an untrustworthy huckster. After a first, promising gig at the Mariners Club, disaster strikes when a genuine, highly accomplished, professional Neil Diamond impersonator of repute from Los Angeles turns up in town and tells Neil to beat it. Outrageous chaos ensues.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is Tom Sharpe’s output since the 1990s and 10 is his early 70s satires of South Africa, The Ghost of Neil Diamond probably comes in at around a 5 or 6 – decently crafted, unpretentious fun with a dash of black humour, and worth grabbing if you see it. It warrants extra marks for its cliché-free depiction of an unglamorous and squalid Hong Kong, exemplified by the pitiful Chan and his grubby office. The HK Tourism Board won’t be handing out copies of this book. Is there any higher praise?
The early Wilt books were great. Wilt’s experiences and the behaviour of the twins and some of their utterances were a portent of what was to befall places like the UK.
If you’re not careful, you’ll give away your identity. How many people can fully appreciate the black humour of both the comforts of Shatin and the subtle gradations of 60s cool?
I am not sure what surprises me more: the never-ending supply of ‘Hong Kong novels’ by (mostly) British teachers/ lawyers/ backpackers, or the fact that they can still find publishers for their output.
….Ian Gibbons walked into the Old China Dick, a dark and seedy pub on bustling Lockhart Road, populated by a diverse collection of unsavoury characters, flotsam of the Colony’s exotic fringe. Women with a past and men without future. Stepping inside from the neon strip that is Wanchai, he squinted his eyes, and there in the far corner, she sat: [fill in cliche of choice].
I am not sure what surprises me more: the never-ending supply of ‘London Chick-lit novels’ by (mostly) British teachers/ ad agency types/ lawyers/ backpackers, or the fact that they can still find publishers for their output.
….Ivana Gibbons walked into the Old City Pipe, a dark and seedy pub on a bustling City Road, populated by a diverse collection of unsavoury characters, flotsam of the Colony Club’s exotic fringe. Women with a past and men without future. Stepping inside from the neon strip that is St Paul’s Cathedral’s Crypt, she squinted her eyes, clenched her buttocks and there in the far corner, she sat: [fill in cliche of choice].
Neil D is looking at his guitar in much the same way that Basil Fawlty did just before he took a branch to his Austin 1300 Estate and gave it a “damm good thrashing”.
I read a book once.
It wasn’t yours.
Oi! What’s wrong with being a man with no future?
Gentlemen – thank you so much for your attention, particularly, of course, the Big Lychee. A Google alert brought me here. What you really need to know is that the Reprise Edition of this novel (isbn 9780956509321) is much better – or, if you’ve no intention of ever opening either edition – much worse.
‘Hong Kong Belongers’ – out of print now – was, I thought, a very good novel. Not everything is farcical.
The Ghost of Neil Diamond is a cracking read. A cracklin’. read, in fact. It is a persepective of Hong Kong never seen before. The clash between the impersonators is wonderful.