Alexander Trocchi was one of the seminal beat figures. Born in Scotland, he made his way in Paris and New York, and Young Adam is one of his most important works. Joe is a drifter who works as a hired hand on a barge traveling the Clyde River between Glasgow and Edinburgh. As Young Adam opens, Joe finds the corpse of a young woman floating in the water. Was it an accident, a suicide, or was she murdered? As the police investigate and arrest a suspect, Trocchi’s haunting novel reveals that Joe knows far more than he’s telling. Meanwhile, confined in the claustrophobic space of the barge, an unspoken attraction develops between Joe and the wife of the barge skipper. Originally published in 1954, this is an absorbing existential thriller, a forgotten gem by an important beat writer.
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About the Author
Alexander Trocchi (19251984) was a Scottish novelist whose numerous works include Cain’s Book. He resided mainly in Paris and New York throughout his life. He was an editor of the literary journal Merlin , which published works by Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others.
David L. Ulin is the author, most recently, of the novel Ear to the Ground. His other books include Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles , a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he spent ten years as book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.
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These are times when what is to be said looks out of the past at you — looks out like someone at a window and you in the street as you walk along. Past hours, past acts, take on an uncanny isolation; between them and you who look back on them now there is no continuity.
This morning, the first thing after I got out of bed, I looked in the mirror. It is of chromium-plated steel and I always carry it with me. It is unbreakable. My beard had grown imperceptibly during the night and now my cheeks and chin were covered with a short stubble. My eyes were less bloodshot than they had been during the previous fortnight. I must have slept well. I looked at my image for a few moments and I could see nothing strange about it. It was the same nose and the same mouth, and the little scar above and thrusting down into my left eyebrow was no more obvious than it had been the day before. Nothing out of place and yet everything was, because there existed between the mirror and myself the same distance, the same break in continuity which I have always felt to exist between acts which I committed yesterday and my present consciousness of them.
But there is no problem.
I don't ask whether I am the "I" who looked or the image which was seen, the man who acted or the man who thought about the act. For I know now that it is the structure of language itself which is treacherous. The problem comes into being as soon as I begin to use the word "I". There is no contradiction in things, only in the words we invent to refer to things. It is the word "I" which is arbitrary and which contains within it its own inadequacy and its own contradiction.
No problem. Somewhere from beyond the dark edge of the universe a hyena's laugh. I turned away from the face in the mirror then. Between then and now I have smoked nine cigarettes.
It had come floating downstream, willowy, like a tangle of weeds. She was beautiful in a pale way — not her face, although that wasn't bad, but the way her body seemed to have given itself to the water, its whole gesture abandoned, the long white legs apart and trailing, sucked downwards slightly at the feet.
As I leant over the edge of the barge with a boathook I didn't think of her as a dead woman, not even when I looked at the face. She was like some beautiful white water-fungus, a strange shining thing come up from the depths, and her limbs and her flesh had the ripeness and maturity of a large mushroom. But it was the hair more than anything; it stranded away from the head like long grasses. Only it was alive, and because the body was slow, heavy, torpid, it had become a forest of antennae, caressing, feeding on the water, intricately.
It was not until Leslie swore at me for being so handless with the boathook that I drew her alongside. We reached down with our hands. When I felt the chilled flesh under my fingertips I moved more quickly. It was sagging away from us and it slopped softly and obscenely against the bilges. It was touching it that made me realize how bloated it was.
Leslie said: "For Christ's sake get a bloody grip on it!"
I leant down until my face was nearly touching the water and with my right hand got hold of one of the ankles. She turned over smoothly then, like the fat underbelly of a fish. Together we pulled her to the surface and, dripping a curtain of river-water, over the gunwale. Her weight settled with a flat, splashing sound on the wooden boards of the deck. Puddles of water formed quickly at the knees and where the chin lay.
We looked at her and then at each other but neither of us said anything. It was obscene, the way death usually is, frightening and obscene at the same time.
"A hundred and thirty at eleven pence a pound": an irrelevant thought ... I didn't know how it came to me, and for more than one reason, partly because I knew Leslie would be shocked, I didn't utter it. Later you will see what I mean.
The ambulance didn't arrive until after breakfast. I don't suppose they were in a hurry because I told them she was dead on the telephone. We threw a couple of potato sacks over her so that she wouldn't frighten the kid and then I went over and telephoned and went back and joined Leslie and his wife and the kid at breakfast.
"No egg this morning?" I said.
Ella said no, that she'd forgotten to buy them the previous day when she went to get the stores. But I knew that wasn't true because I'd seen her take them from her basket when she returned. That made me angry, that she didn't take the trouble to remember how she'd examined the shells because she thought she might have broken one of them, and me there in the cabin at the time. It was a kind of insult.
"Salt?" I said, the monosyllable carrying the cynical weight of my disbelief.
"Starin' you in the face," she said.
It was damp. I had to scrape it from the side of the dish with my knife. Ella ignored the scratching sound and Leslie, his face twitching as it sometimes did, went on reading the paper.
It was only when I had began to eat my bacon that it occurred to me they'd had an egg. I could see the traces on the prongs of their forks. And after I'd gone all the way across the dock to the telephone ... Leslie got up noisily, without his second cup of tea. He was embarrassed. Ella had her back to me and I swore at her under my breath. A moment later she too went up on deck, taking the kid with her, and I was left alone to finish my breakfast.
We were all on deck when the ambulance arrived. It was one of those new ambulances, streamlined, and the men were very smart. Two policemen arrived at the same time, one of them a sergeant, and Leslie went ashore to talk to them. Jim, the kid, was sitting on an upturned pail near the bows so that he would get a good view. He was eating an apple. I was still annoyed and I sat down on a hatch and waited. I looked out across the water at the black buffalo-like silhouette of a tug which crept upstream near the far shore. Beyond it on the far bank, a network of cranes and girders closed in about a ship. "To sail away on a ship like that," I thought, "away. Montevideo, Macao, anywhere. What the hell am I doing here? The pale North." It was still early and the light was still thin but already a saucer of tenuous smoke was gathering at the level of the roofs.
Then the ambulance men came across the quay and on to the barge and I pointed to where we had put the body under the sacks. I left them to it. I was thinking again of the dead woman and the egg and the salt and I was bored by the fact that it was the beginning of the day and not the end of it, days being each the same as the other as they were then, alike as beads on a string, with only the work on the barge, and Leslie to talk to. For I seldom talked to Ella, who appeared to dislike me and who gave the impression she only put up with me because of him: a necessary evil, the hired hand.
And then I noticed Ella pegging out some clothes at the stern.
I had often seen her do it before but it had never struck me in the same way. I had always thought of her as Leslie's wife — she was screaming at him about something or calling him Mister High-and-Mighty in a thick sarcastic voice — and not as a woman who could attract another man. That had never occurred to me.
But there she was, trying very hard not to look round, pretending she wasn't interested in what was going on, in the ambulance men and all that, and I found myself looking at her in a new way.
She was one of those heavy women, not more than thirty-five, with strong buttocks and big thighs, and she was wearing a tight green cotton dress which had pulled up above the backs of her knees as she stretched up to put the clothes on the line, and I could see the pink flesh of her ankles growing over the rim at the back of her shoes. She was heavy all right, but her waist was small and her legs weren't bad and I found myself suddenly liking the strong look of her. I watched her, and I could see her walk through a park at night, her heels clacking, just a little bit hurriedly, and her heavy white calves were moving just ahead of me, like glowworms in the dark. And I could imagine the soft sound of her thighs as their surfaces grazed.
As she reached up her buttocks tightened, the cotton dress fitting itself to their thrust, and then she alighted on her heels, bent down, and shook the excess water out of the next garment.
A moment later she looked round. Her curiosity had got too much for her, and she caught me looking at her. Her look was uncertain. She flushed slightly, maybe remembering the egg, and then, very quickly, she returned to her chore.
The police sergeant was making notes in a little black notebook, occasionally licking the stub of his pencil, and the other cop was standing with his mouth open watching the stretcher-bearers who seemed to be taking their time. They had laid down the stretcher on the quay and were looking enquiringly at the police sergeant, who went over and looked under the sheet which they had thrown over her when they put her on the stretcher. One of them spat. I glanced away again.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ella's legs move.
Four kids from somewhere or other, the kind of kids who hang about vacant lots, funeral processions, or street accidents, stood about five yards away and gaped. They had been there almost since the beginning. Now the other policeman went over to them and told them to go away.
Reluctantly, they moved farther away and lingered. They grinned and whispered to each other. Then they whooped at the gesticulating cop and ran away. But they didn't go far, just round the corner of the shed across the quay, and I could see them poking their heads out round the corner, climbing over each other into sight. I remember one of them had flaming red hair.
The ambulance men had lifted the stretcher again but one of them stumbled. A very naked white leg slipped from under the sheet and trailed along the ground like a parsnip. I glanced at Ella. She was watching it. She was horrified but it seemed to fascinate her. She couldn't tear her eyes away.
"Woah!" the man at the back said.
They lowered the stretcher again and the front man turned round and arranged the leg out of sight. He handled it as though he were ashamed of it.
And then they hoisted the stretcher into the back of the ambulance and slammed the doors. At that moment Jim finished his apple and threw the core at the cat, which was crouched on its belly at the edge of the quay. The cat jumped, ran a bit, and then walked away with its tail in the air. Jim took out a tin whistle and began to play on it.
The sergeant closed his notebook, looped elastic round it, and went over to speak to the driver of the ambulance. Leslie was lighting his pipe.
Leslie had been a big man when he was younger, and he was still big at the time, but his muscles were running to flesh and his face was heavy round the chin so that his head had the appearance of a square pink jube-jube sucked away drastically at the top, and, as he didn't shave very often, the rough pinkness of his cheeks was covered by a colourless spreading bristle. He had small light blue eyes sunk like buttons in soft wax, and they could be kind or angry. When he was drunk they were pink and threatening. The way he was standing, running forwards and outwards from his razor-scraped Adam's apple to the square brass buckle of his belt, you could see he wasn't a young man; in his middle fifties, I suppose.
The ambulance was driving away and the sergeant was going over to talk to Leslie again. I remember it struck me as funny at the time that he should address all his remarks to Leslie. I watched the cat sniffing at something which looked like the backbone of a herring near the quay wall. It tried to turn it over with its paw. Then I heard Ella yelling at Jim. It seemed she hadn't noticed him before.
"I thought I told you to stay down below! I'll get your father to you!"
And then she turned on me and said I ought to be ashamed of myself for not keeping the boy out of the way. Did I think it was good for him to see a corpse? She said she thought I put the sacks over the body so as not to frighten him. I was about to say he didn't seem very frightened to me — sitting there playing "Thou art lost and gone forever, oh my darling, Clementine" on his tin whistle — but I could see she wasn't very angry. I could see she was in some way trying to get her own back for the long look I had at her backside, and that amused me and I didn't say anything. She turned away, lifted the basin which had contained the wet clothes, and I heard her clump down through the companionway into the cabin. Then, suddenly, I laughed. The kid was looking at me. But I went on laughing.
There was the discussion about suicide or murder. She asked him about it as soon as the police were gone, as soon as the ambulance moved away and the sergeant had finished with Leslie, who with an unlit pipe in his mouth, came back aboard.
"What did the police say?"
I watched her carefully. She was inquisitive but wanted at the same time for us to think that she was above that kind of thing if we weren't.
Leslie said that the sergeant didn't know anything. But there were no marks on the body so Leslie didn't think it could have been murder.
I knew Ella was going to say what she did about its being just like men not to be able to keep their eyes off a woman, especially if she had no clothes on, and I thought the words just suited her standing there as she was in her too-tight green cotton dress so that you could see the shape and strength of her thighs. And as she spoke it occurred to me that the line of wet clothes in the background was part of the picture too, of a coarse, sexually frustrated woman calling down the judgement of the Almighty on the sex she despised.
I had the impression at the time that she was talking to me more than Leslie, although it was to him that she spoke. She grudged me the glimpse I'd had of her. She said that we were evil bastards, both of us. Then she turned away.
Leslie winked at me. I noticed there were red specks in the whites of his eyes. He said she had got up the wrong side that morning. He nodded in her direction — she was sweeping near the stern — and he winked at me again.
But I remembered how through the wooden partition between the cabins it was her laughter which had wakened me that morning, and perhaps that was the beginning of it all and not the sight of her as she hung the clothes up. And I thought that perhaps she was angry with me because I knew about the eggs, because she had been caught out at a direct lie.
Leslie said he wondered what the hell was wrong now. I looked up and saw that the ambulance had halted at the other side of the vacant lot which ran directly on to the quayside. The driver was talking out of the window to a man in plain clothes. We watched without saying anything until the man stepped on the running board and the ambulance drove away.
"More to it than meets the eye," Leslie said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
I said it had nothing to do with us.
"We found the body, didn't we?"
"It might have been anybody."
"But it wasn't. It was us." He was reluctant to give up possession.
I didn't feel like arguing with him. I was thinking about Ella, wishing Leslie was to hell out of here so that I could make a play for her. I wanted her.
"Anyway," I said, turning away, "it's over now."
"Maybe," he said.
There wasn't much to do then until the lorries came with the load. We were leaving in the afternoon with a load of anthracite for Edinburgh and Leith. Ours was a motor barge, so we could move straight from the river to the canal without waiting for a tow. Both of us felt a bit uncomfortable there on deck and doing nothing because Ella never seemed to stop working. She had finished sweeping and now she was doing some vegetables in a wooden bucket. An occasional plopping sound came from it as the potatoes, peeled, white, and shining were dropped in.
She was sitting just that distance away so that you didn't know whether she could hear what you were saying or not, and every time I looked over at her I had the impression that she had just looked away, but maybe that was only imagination. It could have been, because since I had watched her stretch up to put the clothes on the line I couldn't get her out of my mind and I had a faint nausea at the pit of my stomach when I thought she might be aware of me as I was of her. I felt idle then for the first time in a long time because I felt she was watching me. Leslie felt the same thing for obvious reasons ("Are you going to stand there all day airin' yoursel'?" she would scream) and he was anxious to be occupied at some job or other, but evidently he could think of nothing to do. Ella, meanwhile, didn't appear to care whether we were doing anything or not. She just squatted there on a small wooden stool, her big bare knees showing, peeling potatoes and humming to herself. I couldn't hear her humming, but I got the impression she was, and I could see by the corners of her mouth that she was smiling.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Young Adam"
Copyright © 1954 Alexander Trocchi.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ignore the "beat generation novel" label (because who cares anyway...I know I don't). This is a grim but very well-written book. I'd love to see Stuart David go in this direction. Well, maybe not. But it would be interesting.