Beetle Mania: a review of Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman

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Bloomsbury USA

Eugenics, the socio-biological movement/applied science which was popular in the early part of the 20th century, lies at the heart of Ned Beauman's eccentric, inaugural novel, Boxer, Beetle. The practice, which was adopted by the Nazis under Hitler, Fascists, and other extremists, found its roots in Social Darwinism which emerged in the UK in the 1870's. Its tenets were racial supremacy, and the sterilization and extermination of so-called "degenerate" or "unfit" classes of human beings. But Beauman commendably teases out only the risible strands from this bit of nefarious history, and presents the reader with a darkly comic mystery employing some of the most memorable characters you will find in recent fiction.

Beauman's narrator, Kevin 'Fishy' Broom, a shut-in due to a condition that makes his sweat and urine reek of fish, is also an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. "I'm not a secret Nazi." he espouses. "I feel sick when I think about what they did. So do you, probably. And if just the thought can provoke a spurious little shiver of survivor's guilt, imagine what it's like to pick up an SS dagger in your hand. I don't know of any experience like it...It's stupid and exhilarating and revelatory." After a mishap involving Fishy and the acquisition of some prime Nazi artifacts, Beauman drops us back in 1934, where we meet the antecessors of his tale:  The fascist entomologist, Philip Erskine, whose fascination with beetles rivals only his passion for the perfect specimen, and Seth 'Sinner' Roach, the near dwarfish teenage Jewish boxer of the title.

The author has a Dickensian ability to portray unforgettable characters on the page; drawing them, if one were to compare him to a painter, like Francis Bacon perhaps; with bold, severe strokes. So when Sinner and Erskine first meet, outside of a subterranean haunt catering to homosexuals, they don't easily forget each other. The clash of personalities -- Sinner's brash confidence and sanguine lewdness juxtaposed with Erskine's well mannered passion for science and his sexual repression just on the brink of spilling over -- provides more than enough tension to keep the reader engrossed in the story until the end. It soon becomes evident that two seemingly polar opposites, are really not so different. After all, human DNA is only a couple of percent different than the DNA of, say, a beetle.

Speaking of beetles, Erskine, during a field trip to Fluek, Poland in 1935, while attending Trinity College, happens upon a new species of the armored bug. Of his discovery he reveals:
"As the insect raised its membranous wings in preparation for flight the diamond pattern on them was disrupted, and just for an instant they flashed a different pattern, an asymmetrical rearrangement of the same four right angles. A perfect clockwise tetraskelion. A swastika."
Ned Beauman
Thus Erskine's entanglement with the then fledgling Nazi Party. Although, his family tree already had a notorious Fascist streak up its trunk -- the philosophy of Eugenics seemingly inbred -- with the likes of Erasmus Erskine, his grandfather, the publisher of the archaeological periodical Ultima Thule and the inventor of the Pangaean language; an attempt at purifying and unifying the languages of Europe (think Esperanto). His father, William, was the host of a yearly Fascist conference at the family estate of Claremore. It is the events which unfold at this conference back in 1936 that become the crux of Fishy's dilemma in present day London. Beauman does a good job oscillating between time periods, keeping focus on each just enough to speed the story along.

With Boxer, Beetle, Ned Beauman joins the ranks of writers like T.C. Boyle or even Thomas Pynchon, displaying his ample talent for brewing history with cartoonish satire and serving it with a steady sleight of hand. He even throws in a Kafkaesque reference to The Metamorphosis and takes an Hitchcockian turn, inserting his own name into the mix (albeit a chat room sock-puppet). It's this playfulness and self-deprecation in a sense that is indicative of a successful artist.

~ Book Jones 4.5 Stars
  • Title: Boxer, Beetle
  • Author: Ned Beauman
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (September 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608196801
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608196807