Everyone loves a scumbag

I took exception the other day at something I read describing Indiana Jones as an anti-hero. Fair enough I suppose if you’re taking the word to the letter. An anti-hero is just someone who is a hero in certain senses yet displays un-heroic characteristics. But that’s basically everyone – even Superman has his moments of foolishness. A hero wouldn’t be a hero without a bit of humanity.

An anti-hero is really something quite different, and I like them much better than the great and the good. Anti-heroes is Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not casually abandoning a human cargo, his choked last words mistaken for demented ramblings. It’s Rorschach in Watchmen breaking fingers and flinging pans of boiling chip fat at convicts, William Munny’s narrow eyes and Mike Sullivan’s Tommy gun sputtering in the dark as the rain trickles from Paul Newman’s hat brim. They’re dark people, sometimes striving for redemption, often pleasingly unconcerned by it, and much more interesting than anyone with a square jaw and a clear conscience. Here are two of my all-time favourites.

1. Nostromo

Conrad’s massive but brilliant beastie of a novel is so vast and ambitious that it spends most of its time in danger of spiralling totally out of control. It’s all about the formation of a new country in a made-up corner of South America, and the various motivations of the people involved. Almost all of whom, by the by, are foreigners looking for a piece of the pie. International foreign policy has changed little in a hundred years. If you try and read it casually you’ll never make it a third of the way through, so just put a weekend aside, find somewhere to stretch yourself out and read it all day and night until you’re done.

The book’s namesake raises an interesting question, as to whether a hero is defined by his actions or his attitudes. Nostromo is an Italian captain of the cargadores, who seem less like dockers and more like his own private band of mercenaries. Broad-shouldered, moustachioed, courageous, arrogant, resourceful, cigar-smoking and of tremendous integrity, Nostromo is the only man who can be trusted to smuggle out and hide the boatload of gold that the fate of the new republic hinges upon.

But he doesn’t do it out of kindness, or loyalty, or love, or even for simple monetary gain. Nostromo becomes the hero of the novel to prove that he is the only man who can. Out of monumental vanity and the wish for self-glorification. His flaw is that not only does he care nothing for anyone but himself, but he is unable to recognise any form of character in other people. He reduces them to objects in his own story, and also reduces himself to an object in theirs. He rarely expresses emotion himself, and though he’s comfortable with childlike affection or the temporary brotherhood of a fight, he seems unable or unwilling to engage with anything more. Where he finds himself in hearts, he casts them away carelessly. He reduces himself, quite consciously, to a plot tool.

Memories are short for simple facts. Years after the event, other characters in the novel carry the memories of lost men with them, where with a new world where he is no longer needed comes the end of Nostromo. I think it all sort of hinges around the fact that if you feel anything real for another person, in whatever sense, then at some stage your story is guaranteed an unhappy ending. Life has after all just the one certainty, but at least if you are loved then when you’re gone something remains that isn’t concrete. Nostromo has none of this. He has cold history, and that’s all.

Lucky Jim

How we envy him. Anyone who’s ever read this will be able to quote to you more or less verbatim the famous hangover sequence. ‘He felt like some small denizen of the night had used his mouth as a latrine, and later as its mausoleum…’ Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is my comfort novel. A book equivalent of Bovril on toast and whisky late at night. I’m aware that the female characters are a little controversial, but my favourite books, like my favourite people, are not the best ones I know.

Jim Dixon makes a hash of just about everything he touches. He can’t control his drinking or smoking. Of moderate intelligence, he is never the best man in any situation. His moral compass does not point unerringly north. He is constantly forced to pander to people he despises, and can only express his contempt through childish and petty gestures. Yet in a marvellous perversion of justice Dixon wins out. Hot on the tail of a tragic and very public drunken tirade that should rightfully cost him his last shred of dignity, he gets the girl, is neatly absolved of any guilt over spurning mental Margaret, gets the job he wants, moves to the big city, and in a final, beautiful gesture, gets to openly mock the people he loathes, gleefully rubbing salt into their wounded pride.

Lucky Jim is the dream. He’s like we would be if our lives were fiction instead of drab reality. Hope personified for self-destructive misanthropes. When you feel a bit rough you just have to sit and read a bit of it and you can look at your ramshackle life and feel happy, because you might be lucky too. Now there’s an anti-hero.

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