Friday, May 8, 2015

FFB: Body Charge - Hunter Davies

Franko Baxter is sort of lost in life. Drifting in and out of a humdrum life as a cab driver with no real friends, living with his Gran with whom he ends each night with a ritual cup of cocoa, he finds no real joy in life except when work is done and he can head off to play football with young men and sometimes teenagers.  Body Charge (1972) is the story of his aimless life, his search for love and friendship and in the end a story of reconciliation of the self.

Franko is hopelessly naive about himself, especially as far as sex goes. We learn prior to his current job in an unlicensed car-for-hire service he was working in a hair salon and lived with an openly gay and sexually ravenous man named Jonathan. Franko hints at a few male on male encounters with Jonathan but we don't learn the real truth of that relationship until the penultimate chapter.  As the story progresses it is clear that though Franko is attracted to women and attempts a few straight relationships what he really craves is male companionship. Sex with anyone doesn't really excite him he confesses, yet he finds himself increasingly fascinated with men, the male physique and what he feels is an astonishing energy required to maintain a life of non-stop hedonism. The novel focuses on four men and the strange friendships they develop with Franko.  There is Zak, a young married man living on the dole whose son says "my Dad's job is looking for a job";  Shug, a rising star athlete in professional football (that's soccer to all you Yanks);  Joff, an arrogant highly sexed BBC TV presenter; and Ginger, a teenage hooligan and would-be skinhead.

1st UK paperback (Sphere, 1974)
When one of these men is found beaten to death in a park known for gay cruising and sexcapades in the bushes Franko becomes one of the prime suspects.  The mystery aspect of the novel is not all that mysterious. It's rather obvious what happened to the poor guy and who is responsible.  But the point of the story is not really about the crime and its solution.  Rather that Franko must have his eyes opened to the truth about the men he thinks are his friends while simultaneously undergoing an epiphany about himself.  The murder investigation forces him to admit to a few secrets in his past as well as mustering up the courage to stand up for the gay men even if he must suffer physical violence in the process.

This is a book with an identity problem of its own. It starts off as a character study, then tries on social satire, then metaphysical navel gazing, then trips into the land of murder mysteries.  The murder mystery is the least successful of the genres Davies attempts but somehow it was difficult to put down. Eventually this quick change storytelling settles down in the last half when Body Charge becomes an intriguing novel of social criticism and Franko finds himself speaking out against cruelty, oppression and violent bigotry.

As an examination of self and sexual identity the novel is a little ahead of its time for the early 1970s and has lot that still resonates for contemporary 21st century life. Long before gender identity and sexual politics became topics of study in college and graduate school Davies was unwittingly writing a sort of primer for gay identity. The novel is also an encapsulation of 1970s life in London in its depictions of football hooligans, skinheads, sex parties, swingers, and gay activism. One of the most unusual and prescient vignettes is found towards the end of the book when a guerrilla theater group protests intolerance for gays and lesbians by staging a mock gay wedding that ends in cheerleading and in-your-face same sex kissing. Most of the observers are appalled and disgusted, but a group of senior citizen ladies give the demonstrators a rousing ovation.

Hunter Davies
Despite his blase naivete Franko is the kind of loser character you want to root for.  You want him to commit to anything and stop dabbling, you want more from him than his slow realizations that seem startling to him but to anyone tuned into real living would find obvious. You want him to find a foothold in Life instead of standing half in his long gone adolescent past and half in the world of grown-ups. He reminds me of characters like Nick Carraway who stand outside of life always observing, rarely participating. These are the kind of characters always in awe of people who grab life by the balls and sink their teeth into experience often devouring people in their hunger for exuberant living. But these observers never have the courage to try to emulate those they admire. Franko has to be forced into his decisions and though he pays dearly at the violent hands of one of his false friends in the final paragraphs there is encouragement and hope for him.

Body Charge has been reprinted by Valancourt Books and their fine reprint edition includes a foreword by Hunter Davies disclosing how the book came to be written and how surprised he was that it still seems timely to him more than 40 years after its original publication. You can read more about Davies and Body Charge at their website here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks John, this si abook that I had no idea had been reprinted. Sound slike several works rolled into one - but in a way, knowing that in advance, I think I will get alot more out of it - as ever, thanks for the great guidance.