Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman
Ned Beauman’s Boxer Beetle is populated by spoiled children grown to adulthood, near-sociopathic criminals, bickering fascists, petty eugenicists and anti-Semites. Luckily characters with whom you’d like to spend time (or even who you’d feel comfortable passing by on the street) are not a prerequisite for a good read.
Kevin Broom, small time Nazi memorabilia collector and trader, is possibly the most likeable of the bunch, though afflicted by trimethylaminuria, a genetic condition that makes him smell like rotting fish, he’s not necessarily someone with whom many people would choose to socialize. Kevin’s inadvertent entanglement with a murder in the present leads to a mystery, our entry point into the plot consuming most of the novel, the mid-1930s tale set in England of Jewish boxer, Seth Roach, and English aristocrat, Philip Erskine.
Seth “Sinner” Roach is a rising, adolescent, boxing champion: dwarfish, vain, brutal, and seemingly without remorse. Philip Erskine is a fascist gentleman who dreams of impressing Chancellor Adolf Hitler by breeding a super beetle in the dictator’s name (Anophthalmus hitleri). Erskine sees “Sinner” as a perfect specimen with which to apply his eugenics theories to humans, and Roach, at his weakest moment, bargains away his body to the eugenicist for a place to live, food, and alcohol. From there Seth’s vicious lack of restraint and Philip’s fascism, racism, and repressed attraction to Seth drive the two along in a way reminiscent of the characters in Sartre’s No Exit, only in a much larger milieu and with more graphic violence and sex.
Boxer, Beetle succeeds admirably in sustaining interest in a cast of characters that predominantly fall somewhere in the range between vile and pathetic. Nearly every page contains a tangible sense that the protagonists’ lives are about it implode, at times eliciting dread but more often than not anxious curiosity. Balance that with a knack for keen observation and you have a tale that is, if nothing else, grippingly interesting.
I imagine many readers will take offense with a great deal in Beauman’s novel. Characters enthusiastically display racist prejudices, fascist beliefs, the desire to breed humans like cattle, callous disregard for life, admiration for Hitler … and then there is the previously mentioned graphic sex and violence. In the shadow of the list above, it barely seems necessary to mention the language.
As such, Boxer Beetle is not for readers with delicate sensibilities, or the inability to make the distinction between the character’s beliefs and the author’s, but I found it hard to put down. Whether this was a byproduct of the story’s literary merit or the impending train wreck of its characters’ lives, I can’t honestly say, but readers with a thick skin and a dark sense of humor should most definitely enjoy this book.