Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation
by Martin Millar
Bums of Brixton
A review by Gerry Donaghy
Alby Starvation, the titular character of Martin Millar's debut novel (originally published in 1987), is a speed dealer in Brixton who likes reggae and comic books. Sadly, but to the benefit of the reader, his physical and mental state are deteriorating at a rapid pace. He has no job. It appears as if he's dying, with a face "that looks a hundred years old." On top of all this, it seems that the Milk Marketing Board has put out a contract on his life. Starvation believes his one chance at survival is to sell his comics so that he can buy a gun to defend himself.
Supported by this demented premise, Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation hits the ground running and barely lets up through the course of its 169 pages. The protagonist is an amusing hybrid of Dostoevsky's Underground Man and the crazed anti-hero from Hunger (can Starvation's name be a play on Knut Hamsun's novel?) if they both watched too many episodes of the '80s BBC comedy The Young Ones.
Even more amusing is that, despite his very tenuous grip on reality, Starvation is one of the more sane characters in the book. There are his best friends, a pair of women who live in a squat and drink to the point of oblivion. There is a self-defense teacher with a mysterious Far-East origin, and two men bitterly competing against one another in an arcade game called Kill Another One. There is the paranoid grocery store manager, who has funny ideas of what constitutes material success. And, just who is the Asian man seeking out Starvation? Is he a rival dealer looking to cut in on Starvation's turf, or is something even more nefarious up his sleeve?
Millar's narrative stimulates the reader's brain like a line of the hero's speed, effortlessly skating back and forth in time and perspective, often deviating from Starvation's unreliable first person to a much more reliable and omniscient third person. However, as rambling as the story is, Millar manages to never lose sense of the pacing and comic timing, building to a conclusion that ties up the loose ends with explosive chaos.
There is a certain anarchic sense of joie de vivre throughout, where a lack of food or money inspires possibilities, not despair. As Starvation's friends proceed to get plastered at a club, the narrator comments, "...whatever state they find themselves in the following morning, they will carry on living and they will have had a good time." In fact, the characters that seem to suffer the most are the ones who fall prey to what they perceive to be trappings of bourgeois respectability and material comfort. The grocery store manager is driven to desperate measures in an effort to get a bonus with which to purchase a ridiculous pool-like contraption that he thinks will be his ticket to envy from his peers. The ones with the least to lose always seem to land like a cat.
One enjoyable aspect of the novel is how it reminds me so vividly of the period it depicts. So much of my life in 1987, when I was 19 years old, comes through in these pages. Often, it's a little thing, like Starvation taping a radio program (a pursuit lost in this age of iTunes and Pandora); other times, it's the general state of chemical excess that comes with the freedom that early adulthood confers.
Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation reads like a kind of ur-Trainspotting that was possible while the shadow of the Sex Pistols was still fresh. There is no phony nihilism and no political posturing, just the celebration of fleeting opportunities for happiness in the squalor of punk bohemia.