The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett
I really took to this book which doesn’t come as a surprise as I have read most of Neil Bartlett’s work with the exception of the rather weird but reputedly insightful ‘Skin Lane’. It should be of interest especially to anyone interested in theatre tradition including vaudeville and especially stage ‘magic’ acts. The hero, Reggie Rainbow, is a ‘disappearance boy’ who works with a stage magician to engineer the conventional on-stage disappearance of a lovely lady. It is just possible that some might find the amount of detail devoted to explaining how ‘disappearing’ tricks are done rather burdensome. Personally, I found it interesting and it can be seen as analogous to much of the story construct and the nature of illusion.
The focus is on Reggie Rainbow who is orphaned as a child polio victim and placed in a seaside home where, without being brutalised, he is toughened into a loner young man who happens to have the appropriate physical characteristics for the job of a ‘disappearance boy’. The other theme arising from his childhood is his sorely missed Mother which leads to his tombstone conversations in isolated graveyards. This sounds quite bizarre yet produces moments of spiritual insight for the hero and is quite well handled – so much so that I found it tolerable and even poetic at times.
Reggie at 23 is also gay with a growing need for something more than the random momentary experiences of sexual gratification he has experienced to date.
The setting leads up to the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953. The location is a seedy vaudeville theatre in Brighton. There is an irony overlaying this novel in that it presents the dramatic public interest in the televising of the crowning ceremony as a pointer toward what is going to be the downfall for at least the context in which disappearance acts are to be performed in future – stage vaudeville. There are changes under way and one can only wonder what the future will hold for Reggie.
Bartlett presents a beautifully sketched story line concerning the cad-like stage magician Teddy Brookes Esq who is a shameless manipulator and user of those around him as he struggles with his own personal and professional insecurities. A new lady assistant, Pamela Rose, joins the act and seems destined to be more grist to his professional and sexual ‘mill’ (couldn’t think of a better analogy). However, a bond has formed between Reggie and Pamela as the story accelerates into a surprising denouement that highlights the notion of illusion and self-delusion.
There is much to enjoy in the writing ranging from Reggie’s growing sense of finding himself and warmth in human relationships through to descriptive writing of the Brighton settings that is quite Dickensian. Bartlett uses the device of the personalised aside to draw the reader into identification with scenes and situations – “as you will remember”, “as I said”, “if you know what I mean”, “I’m sure you know the kind of thing.”
I found this a satisfying work in all senses, atmospherically engrossing and with little cause for complaint.