Friday, September 09, 2011


Absolute Beginners, Colin MacInnes, The MacMillan Company, 1959, 223 pp

I was led to this British novel a few years ago from an interview in the Los Angeles Times book section (back when it was truly a book section.) Pauls Toutonghi, then teaching a class on novels about rock music, included a syllabus of such novels. Absolute Beginners was not mentioned in the interview, which means I must have made my own search and found additional titles. Someday I might get around to posting my personal list of rock'n'roll novels.

The novel is about teenage life in London in the late 1950s. It is a luscious mix of parties, jazz, interracial friendships, varieties of sexuality, and social history. There are several great scenes set in jazz clubs, so I guess that is how the book found its way onto my list.

Absolute Beginners is the middle book in what is now called Colin MacInnes's "London Trilogy." When it was first published it was to English teens approximately what The Catcher in the Rye was to American ones. Our narrator however is not much like Holden Caufield except in his hypersensivity to phoniness. He also is never given a name, but we see the life of London teens in that decade through his eyes.

Two social upheavals in British history are prominent in this postwar tale. Due to economics and politics, meaning the Labor party and a new affluence for the middle classes, it was the first decade when teens had money to spend and became a force in the marketplace. It was also a time of massive immigration from various British colonies, injecting a large Black population into the culture and sparking racial tension. For more see this Believer Mag article.

Through his articulate and self-sufficient though nameless narrator, MacInnes gives readers an immersion into this teen culture over the months of one summer, culminating in a race riot. It is a great read and certainly one of the books that signify the arrival of a new era in writing, literature and popular culture.

(Absolute Beginners is out of print but can be found in libraries or purchased from used book sellers.)

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