LONDON — In fairness, Penguin has printed a health warning on the back cover.
“Beware the novelist…intimate and indiscreet… pompous, prophetic airs,” reads the quote from Morrissey. “Here is the fact of fiction…an American tale where, naturally, evil conquerors good, and none live happily ever after.”
The ellipses are all his. Inside, Morrissey’s first novel continues in the same unnerving, stilted style—it often feels like a stream of consciousness.
Around the simple story of a dazzling but doomed track relay team, the former frontman of The Smiths has hung dozens of divergent mini-rants touching on the pet hates that have been grinding his gears since the 1980s, including the royal family, the meat industry, and Margaret Thatcher.
It’s more of a novella than a fully fledged novel, clocking in at fewer than 120 pages, and that’s just as well, since Morrissey’s meandering ramble is unbroken by chapters or any obvious structure.
At times the writing is laughably clunky; the characters are thinly drawn; and the plot twists delivered so matter-of-factly that they prove more confusing than shocking. None of these issues are the most glaring problem with List of the Lost, however. That accolade goes to the extraordinary tone of misogyny that pervades the entire story.
The four young sportsmen at the center of the book, Ezra, Nails, Harri, and Justy, are described in lascivious detail at every turn. The “wide-eyed girls” in the crowd are treated to “the erotic reality of the deltoid deities who have no inhibitions in bodies fully occupied and enjoyed.”
The women we encounter are invariably undeserving of these magnificent specimens. We are told that our poor heroes receive fan mail from “girls of the ‘I, unlovely’ division who wrote too openly from afar.” One of the lucky ones, who succeeds in bedding an athlete, is “over-made-up Tracey, phenomenally top-heavy and modernly unfashionable.”
Perhaps it is a coincidence that some of the bit-part female characters are dismissively sketched, but Morrissey also meditates more explicitly on womankind. “Although the publicly confessed lust of the man must always be made to seem ridiculous and prepubescent, the lust of the woman is at first childlike and desperate—as if they know there is something about which they know nothing, and this itch takes on the aggressive,” he writes. “Women are less of a mystery because their methods and bodies have been over-sold, whereas the male body speaks as the voice calls a halt.”
The women mentioned in this book are almost universally grasping and obsessed with sex. One man complains that his wife “said she was dying from sexual neglect,” another “winked with easy conscience that he now at last had the time to find a wife—the utterly insensible assumption that a carefully preserved, pony-tailed slave might still be out there waiting.”
One of the few exceptions is former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who is described in even less flattering terms by the only fully formed female character: “I hate womb-men like that…they just can’t wait to be one of the boys…and just watch, if she becomes prime minister she won’t hire any women into her government. Why do I even care? I mean, just look at her face.”
If the women in the book are mostly repulsive, the men are magnetic and sexually charged, with Morrissey delighting in the electricity of any physical contact between the athletes. Even the Cartwright brothers in the classic TV Western Bonanza are said to “possess a natural virility and capable masculinity.”
Most extraordinarily of all, one of the characters hints that Jesus Christ also preferred the company of men. “There’s no record of Jesus getting hot under the collar over the girl next door, is there? But he certainly had his men around him.”
While the sexual tension between the young men is palpable, both of the older male characters we encounter also harbor closeted lustful urges. One of them even grabs Ezra’s manhood. The word penis is never used, incidentally, in favor of some spectacular euphemisms, including the “pained frenzy” of Ezra’s “bulbous salutation” in one sex scene.
In fact, the mixed metaphors are among the funniest parts of the book. Cryptographers are still working on this sentence: “Politicians marvel at the submissive gullibility of the electorate, and the hang-hungry judges of America remained beagle-beaked on their benches; blindfolded Father Time always ready to throw the book and run up the flagpole.”
Morrissey makes a few literary references in his first work of fiction, including to Shakespeare, and Ezra’s last name is eventually revealed to be Pound, in honor of the great American poet and editor who worked to improve the writing of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. It is obvious that there was no latter-day Ezra Pound helping out our Moz.