Boxer, Beetle: A Novel by Ned Beauman (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. 256 pp)

Ned Beauman was born in London in 1985 and studied philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His writing appears in Dazed & Confused, Another, The Guardian, and The FinancialTimes. His first novel, Boxer, Beetle, was shortlisted for the 2011 DesmondElliott Prize and the 2010 Guardian First Book Award.

Review copy provided by Library Thing.

What Pawn Stars Can Tell Us about Nazis

A couple weeks ago, I watched an episode of Pawn Stars. Setting aside its obvious staged events and scripted dialogue, the show carries an appeal for those interested in the artifacts of history. In fact, I venture a guess that most hope to see someone bringing in an object similar to their family’s prized heirloom wishing that the value of the object is astronomical.
Well in this specific episode, someone wanted to sell the pawn shop some Nazi memorabilia. Despite the object’s value, Rick from Pawn Stars rejected the item a priori telling the cameras that Nazi items creep him out (let’s ignore the damning evidence on You Tube of Nazi memorabilia in the shop before the Pawn Stars where stars). This statement on fascism, though, summarizes my thoughts on Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle: Nazi stuff creeps me out.

A Jewish Boxer and a Fascist Scientist

In this tome, at 256 pages in length, Beauman splits the plot into two eras. The “A” story surrounds the lives of Seth “Sinner” Roach, a Jewish boxer from lower class London who finds sexual satisfaction in young men, and Philip Erskine, an intellectual, elitist, and effeminate fascist who studies entomology (the study of insects) and recently has become enthralled with the idea of eugenics (the aim of improving the genetic composition of a population). Erskine, impressed by Sinner’s strength and determination in the boxing ring (despite his short stature) endeavors to study the boxer.

Despite his desires to avoid the scared-of-his-shadow intellectual, Sinner ultimately agrees to sell his body to Erskine out of sheer economic despair.
Thus, Erskine begins studying Sinner in between his work genetically modifying beetles. Worried about the escape of his captive, Erskine keeps tabs on Sinner day and night. Such a meticulous watch brings chaos to the relationship when Erskine brings Sinner to a fascist conference in the English countryside.

A Nazi Memorabilia Collector and a Neo-Nazi Hit Man

Meanwhile, the “B” story occurs in present-day England with a Nazi memorabilia collector named Kevin. A mundane check-in with a friendly investigator reveals murder and intrigue as Kevin’s life turns upside down when a neo-Nazi hit man chases Kevin throughout London searching for the clues that would reveal what went terribly wrong with Erskine and Sinner 75 years ago.

Erudite Prose, yet Difficult and Unrewarding

If you still understand what’s happening, I applaud you, because Beauman’s plot is exceedingly and deleteriously deep. Both “A” and “B” plots could comprise a full-length book. Coupled with scholarly prose, Boxer, Beetle is a difficult and unrewarding read.

Yet, my displeasure with the novel as a whole does not equate to a condemnation of Beauman’s writing. In many instances, the depth of his prose provides moments of beauty. The author actually begins the book waxing poetically on two of the most evil people in human history:

“In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party. I like to think that even in the busy autumn of 1940, Hitler might have found time to organize a surprise party for his close friend – pretending for weeks that the date had slipped his mind, deliberately ignoring the Propaganda Minister’s increasingly sulky and awkward hints, and waiting until the very last order had been dispatched to his U-boat commanders on the evening of Tuesday, 29 October before he led Goebbels on some pretext into the cocktail lounge of the Reich Chancellery. A great shout of ‘Alles Gutze zum Geburtstag!’, a cascade of streamers, some relieved and perhaps even slightly tearful laughter from Goebbels himself as he embraced the Führer, and the party could begin” (1).

Despite some well-written passages, the subject matter provides this book with its death sentence. As this quote illustrates, the reader must interact closely with fascist ideology in the form of the novel’s characters. Of course, Beauman is not a fascist and his Nazi-leaning characters are by no means portrayed as saintly, but the very subject matter creates an internal reaction similar to Rick from Pawn Stars. Nazi stuff just creeps me out.

Ultimately, Beauman tries to plant too many themes in this small book. Additionally, the subject matter makes Boxer, Beetle an unrewarding read. In short, search elsewhere for WWII-era fiction.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards

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