Review: THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR by J.M. Porup

TheSecondBatGuanoWarPor19874_fBased on the blurb I was reasonably sure THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR wasn’t going to be my kind of thing but I occasionally get suckered by the nagging quadrant of my brain into worrying that if I only ever read things I think I will like I will miss out on good and/or horizon-expanding reading. Sometimes this turns out to be true (e.g. Ken Bruen’s THE DRAMATIST). And sometimes it doesn’t.

Horace “Horse, as in hung like a…” Mann feels guilty. Before he felt guilty he felt angry so he left his ex-wife, the child that wasn’t really his but for whom he is financially responsible and the country he no longer wants any part of. He ended up in Lima, Peru where his personal life turns into a genuine horror. Hence the guilt.

Horse teaches English to the city’s criminals (so they can more successfully rob the kind of tourists that Horse disdains) and is a minor drug dealer. He has made ‘friends’ with a sociopath called Pitt Watters who is the American ambassador’s son and a CIA killer. When he disappears Pitt’s mother, whom Horse sometimes has sex with, asks Horse to try to find him. Which he proceeds to do. Very, very slowly.

The opening hundred or so pages of THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR include scenes in which the main character snorts cocaine off a urine-splashed toilet, has trouble finding a place on his body where he hasn’t already burned himself with cigarettes which is his preferred form of self-harm (for the record he chooses an armpit on this occasion), is taken to a bondage club in which a man is whipped until he bleeds for the entertainment of others, has a conversation with his friend’s wife while she removes her vibrator from an orifice and puts it, wet and sticky, on the coffee table between them and has his head plunged into a bucket of shit. The remaining 300 or so pages contain an equal number of similar scenes but I think you get the point.

This is the best evidence I can give of the sensibility of the novel. If all of that sounds like your thing then by all means track down a copy (one of you is welcome to mine if you ask nicely). If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then give the book a miss because there is a lot more of the same.

In fact to me it is an endless series of such happenings with little in the way of connecting narrative (though to be fair there is more story in the second half of the novel) (there’s still a lot of violence and bodily fluids but some stuff does happen). Even so, with barely any agency at all Horse lurches around the seediest parts of Peru allowing himself to die. Slowly. Via a series of flashbacks he does tell the reader what terrible event has led to this sorry state of affairs but as the core of this horror is given away by the book’s blurb much of the suspense that might otherwise have been provided here is effectively obliterated. And even in what is objectively a (if not the) defining moment of his miserable life everything happens to Horse or around him.

I’ve no earthly clue who the ideal reader of this book would be. My noir-adoring friend wasn’t intrigued enough by the blurb to take the free copy I tried to press upon him and now, having read it, I cannot think of a single person I know to whom I would suggest it. As a white, Australian, woman who would be considered middle-class with a smattering of exotic travel and one or two of the average human being’s troubles in my background I have absolutely no frame of reference for this novel. Twenty years ago I’d have seen this as some kind of personal flaw on my part. Now I just count my blessings. I am entirely comfortable…indeed grateful…that I don’t ‘get’ this novel.

I am prepared to admit that my lack of connection to anything going on here is not entirely the book’s fault (with me never having been a self-destructive, America-hating, bloke with an enormous penis) it’s not something I’m going to accept much blame for either. I didn’t have anything in common with the people depicted in Sean Doolittle’s LAKE COUNTRY either and I loved it. The differences, for me, are in the presence of a recognisable narrative structure and in the tenderness Doolittle clearly felt for life’s outsiders. Because of that I could, and did, develop my own relationship with the ‘designated loser’ in that novel, even though I couldn’t easily relate his situation (as a rage-fuelled, near-alcoholic, ex-soldier) to anything from my own experience. I’ve no clue what, if any, emotions Porup feels towards the mess of a human being he has created in Horse (or Pitt or Pitt’s mother or Pitt’s father or Horse’s ex or any of the other human detritus that populates this tome). All I know for sure is that he didn’t do anything to make me care whether any of them lived or died, though I’d certainly have been chirpier about it all if their collective fate had taken less than 400 pages to arrive.

One of the things I normally give a bit of thought to at the end of a book is what the author might have been trying to achieve with it and whether or not they managed it. I’m sure I’m often wildly inaccurate but it’s rare that I can’t make a stab at it. Here I’ve no idea. Shock? If so it failed in my case because there was too much awfulness. Each incident of sad debauchery mixed with violence followed so closely on the heels of its predecessor that there’s no time to process any of them at an emotional level. Entertain? I am confident I am (for once) one of the majority of readers who would find the tone and language of this novel too far outside their comfort zone for it to be enjoyable for all but a few. Inform? I suppose the “America is evil” theme is vaguely educational but this message is bludgeoned into proceedings rather than being deftly laid out and in my experience that kind of heavy-handedness rarely attracts new converts. Even many (most?) of those already converted to this way of thinking would, I’d wager, prefer a less crude and violent preacher.

Whatever the intent, for me reading THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR was a chore. Not the kind of chore that is hard work but ultimately satisfying. Just the kind that is hard work. The level of violence and crudity was too high and mostly gratuitous (i.e. being without apparent reason). The pace was slow, indeed glacial for the first half of the novel, due to the aimless ‘narrative’ and repetition of basic elements (how many scenes of seemingly pleasure-free auto-erotic masturbation are needed to indicate the rockiest of bottoms has been reached?). The imagery ranged from plain awful (with almost everyone being described via some reference to their sexual organs) to outright silly (Pitt’s wife, for example, is introduced with these words “…her eyes blue balls of fire. Another cock-hungry American whore”…”she cocked those blue balls of fire sideways, as if taking aim with a shotgun”). I did not find any of it funny or thought-provoking or engaging or any of the other things that might have made it worth my time. If that makes me boring or bourgeois or close-minded…meh.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher J.M. Porup [2012]
ISBN 9780988006997
Length 410 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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13 Responses to Review: THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR by J.M. Porup

  1. greenspace01 says:

    I guess Porup was aiming for “transgressive fiction”, but it sounds very badly written, so I wouldn’t be too bothered worrying what genre or purpose the author had in mind.

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    • oh dear…a whole genre of it…thanks for the warning

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      • greenspace01 says:

        I think Fight Club, Trainspotting (and other Irvine Welsh), American Psycho – I think they’re all considered transgressive fiction. but Irvine Welsh is a good writer, unlike what I gather of Porup from your review -which I enjoyed reading, far more than I would the book, I’m sure 😀

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        • aaahhh…. only one of those I’ve read is Trainspotting and that was a long time ago…I can see the similarities in terms of the level of violence and so on but I remember that being well written even if confronting….this was not. Glad you enjoyed the review though, I enjoyed writing it which is something…I have to work harder when writing a review of a book I hate

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  2. Blighty says:

    This book sounds dreadful but your review was brilliant, most amusing. Had no idea there was a genre called “transgressive fiction”.

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  3. Bernadette – Like you I try to figure out what the author was trying to do with a novel, even I personally don’t care for it. In this case, I don’t think I’m going to even try. And as you say, even if the author is trying to say or accomplish something important, to do so with that kind of violence and gratuitousness isn’t going to get the job done anyway. No….I think I will pass this one by. Quickly. Thanks though for a very well-written post about it.

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  4. Kathy D. says:

    Thanks for the warning. Always enjoy your honest book reviews. I won’t bother. I’m right now traveling virtually from provincial France to Wales, with a middle-aged disheveled, yet brilliant police commissioner and a 12 1/2-year-old girl.
    In between is the troubling Boston tragedy news.
    I always appreciate frank book commentary — it either sends me to my TBR list, causes me to pull out the credit card or propels me to do nothing and move on.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Bernadette: I had trouble reading the whole review. I was not going to read it after hearing about the first 100 pages. I am amazed you completed the book.

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  6. J.M. Porup says:

    I laughed out loud when I read:

    “I am prepared to admit that my lack of connection to anything going on here is not entirely the book’s fault (with me never having been a self-destructive, America-hating, bloke with an enormous penis)”

    The book is clearly not for everyone. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful review.

    J.M. Porup

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