Thursday, April 9, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: Captain Cat (Robert Holles)

[I'll be contributing to the Friday's Forgotten Books and Tuesday's Overlooked Films or A/V potlucks that are well-known among book and movie bloggers. My first film contribution was my review of Romance de fieras the other day; here is my first book.]

Robert Holles's Captain Cat is an excellent and it appears forgotten 1960 novel, about life at a British training camp for junior soldiers (high school age). Narrated in the first person by a new recruit, Harry Bell, it does a wonderful job of situating the reader in the atmospheric thick of the camp. Holles's command of Harry's "voice" is comparable to J.D. Salinger's handling of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye; anyone who enjoys that book should consider tracking down a copy of this one. It is not surprising to learn that Holles was a boy soldier himself, enlisting at age 14, because Captain Cat has that unfakable quality of being very close to the bone.

I'm deliberately not giving away much of the plot. But it is interesting that although the American dust jacket suggests that Harry Bell does something shameful (which he does), and intimates a tragedy (which occurs), the tragedy is NOT directly caused by the shameful behavior, as it might be in a more conventional novel. Robert Holles well understands that life does not always work like that - actions and results do not need to be so directly connected.

Holles is a type of author that appeals to me very much. He toiled in semi-obscurity, but kept on keeping on, publishing 11 books in total (unless there are more under pseudonyms, always a possibility). He wrote screenplays and television plays. Probably plenty of magazine articles, too, although I haven't yet confirmed that, because that is something that writers working for a living do.

In short, Holles was the midlister par excellence, and therefore exactly the sort of writer that tends to get swept away by time. He was essentially a "straight novelist," too, not identified with one genre, and nowadays that greatly increases one's chance of being overlooked. Obscure genre writers are lovingly exhumed; obscure straight novelists left to molder.

But like many midlisters, Holles did fine work. Captain Cat is a corker of a novel. My parents bought it for me off a remainder table sometime in the early sixties, when I was just a wee lad. Possibly, because of the title, they thought it was some kind of children's book, but in any case I was already reading adult novels in early elementary school. What I made of the book at the time I can't quite recall, but I kept it with me and re-read it (again recently, too), and it has remained embedded in my reading consciousness.

Here is a little bibliography of Holles's 11 books, 8 of which are definitely or probably fiction:

Now Thrive the Armourers (1952) (Non-Fiction)

This is an account of Holles's experiences with the British Army during the Korean War. He was a sergeant with the famous Gloucestershire Regiment, the "Glorious Glosters," which added to its legend during a brave stand against the Chinese at the Battle of the Imjin River (1951), in which Holles participated.

The Bribe Scorners (1956)
Captain Cat (1960)

Religion and Davey Peach (aka Grab It While You Can) (1962)
The Siege of Battersea (aka Guns at Batasi) (1962) (this was filmed under the alternate title)
The Nature of the Beast (1965)
Spawn (1978)

Notice the gap between 1965 and 1978. A possibly frustrated Holles decided to turn his hand to something really commercial, and wrote one of the many Nazisploitation novels littering the Seventies:

Blue-eyed, blonde, and desperately anxious to have a child, Marianne has been impregnated at a fertility clinic with what she thinks is her lover's sperm. In reality, Nazi agents have substituted the semen from a hermetically-sealed canister over 30 years old. Unwittingly and unwillingly, Marianne's body has become an incubator for the Fourth Reich.

Risible, yes, but noted critic John Sutherland notes in his Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s that Holles's is one of the better-executed books in this scabby genre; apparently he couldn't fall beneath a certain level of professionalism.

I’ll Walk Beside You (1979)
Sun Blight (1982)

Guide to Real Village Cricket (1983) (Non-Fiction)
The Guide to Real Subversive Soldiering (1985) (Non-Fiction)

No new novels after 1982 (when Holles turned 56); no new books at all after 1985; no screen work after 1980. I'd be curious to know the reasons for Holles's comparative silence later in life (maybe he continued as a journalist?). But as we all know, being a midlister ain't easy.

Captain Cat.

No comments:

Post a Comment