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Evoking the low life in London


By Malcom Bosse

Ticknor & Fields, $22.95

Reviewed by Adam Begley

Malcolm Bosse's The Vast Memory of Love is a long book, which is a good thing because it takes a while to overcome grave misgivings: Why read an 18th-century English novel written by an American at the tail end of the 20th century? Bosse, author of more than a dozen novels, makes only scattershot use of historical hindsight _ this isn't one of those self-conscious and knowing postmodern concoctions. What Bosse really wants, it seems, is to dunk the reader deep into low-life London of the 1750s.

Once the plot gets going, the pesky question _ why? _ fades from the mind, crowded out by characters who seem to emerge from the sights, sounds and smells of an endlessly corrupt, endlessly fascinating city. That's the measure of Bosse's unusual talent.

Henry Fielding is the presiding genius of The Vast Memory of Love. As the author of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones (published respectively in 1742 and 1749) he offers Bosse a literary model; as the magistrate who organized the Bow Street Runners, he is a key figure in the plot; and as a diarist he becomes at times a surrogate narrator, an 18th-century eye trained on 18th-century doings.

The diary is Bosse's invention, and though it's not particularly convincing as a literary artifact, it does bring Fielding to life: aging, unwell, big-hearted, generous with what's left of his time, he is a rationalist whose principles will always succumb to sentiment.

Other historical characters shuffle in and out of view: there's Handel at his harpsichord, blind and plagued by gout; the obstreperous John Wilkes; and John Montagu, the earl of Sandwich, emblem of a vain and dissipated aristocracy. But Bosse is always drawn to the streets, to the riffraff who don't figure in history books.

Early in the novel he tracks the comings and goings of Robert Scarrat, a villain who pimps for the earl of Sandwich. "Scarrat left the tavern. Clutching his coat lapels against a keen gust of wind, he plowed through a mire glazed like cake. With no more than formal viciousness he kicked at a dog shivering across his path. He paused in a narrow lane until a wagon waddled by, then opened his breeches and pissed in the gutter."

Later, in a chase scene, Bosse takes us through a tunnel below the streets _ lower than the gutter.

Scarrat is procuring compliant girls for a black Mass at Medmenham, an abandoned abbey refurbished for the venal pleasures of a group of sacrilegious noblemen, milord Sandwich included. When one of the girls tries her hand at blackmail, she sets in motion a complex chain of events leading willy-nilly to hanging day at Tyburn, where a bloodthirsty crowd gathers to witness the grisly work at the gallows.

Ned Carleton is our hero, a country lad whose fundamental decency can't be sullied by London grime. Unfairly dismissed from his job as a postilion in the Sandwich household, handicapped by accidental injury, he sinks into a life of crime. On the way down he meets Clare, a part-time prostitute and like Ned miraculously spotless. Love prompts desperate acts, and soon Ned and Clare are caught in the dark intrigue engendered by the satanic revelry at Medmenham.

We race to the end, a slave to suspense. And when we're done it's time to consider the question raised at the outset. Reading a late-model 18th-century novel, it turns out, can be good fun _ a plain old 20th-century novel tricked out in a fancy costume. (Hair-splitters can enjoy the thrill of spotting anachronisms.)

But what's the point? Bosse, with a little help from Fielding, has some mildly interesting things to say about the genesis of crime. I suspect that one could tease out a painfully clever thesis about the fact that Fielding, an early pioneer of the novel, was deeply involved in shaping new attitudes toward crime and criminal investigation. The novel is the genre of the ascendant middle class, the same group whose needs called forth the modern police force.

The Vast Memory of Love is not for readers relentless in their appetite for meaning; it is a book for novel-lovers ready to enjoy the pungent flavor of 18th-century London.

Adam Begley lives in western Kentucky.