By CHOIRE SICHA
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DANDY IN THE UNDERWORLD
By Sebastian Horsley.
328 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper, $13.95.
From time to time, residents of England produce advancements in that nation’s major art forms: narcissism, glibness and camp. Steven Patrick Morrissey corrupted an entire generation in the ’80s with his important work regarding self-involvement and the treatment of pain with sarcasm. A decade later, Jarvis Cocker quite successfully mixed that self-indulgence with class rage and the love of a good chemical.
In this fine and useless tradition comes Sebastian Horsley, a Withnail with more money, one of Malcolm Bradbury’s artistic youngsters with a spike full of heroin, a nephew of Quentin Crisp. His entire life’s work, his memoir explains at length, is to take the idea of lifestyle and elevate it to uselessness.
Art school, a bad marriage and a friendship with the convicted murderer turned artist (or, as Horsley suggests, scam artist) Jimmy Boyle followed. Boyle sleeps with Horsley’s wife; Horsley sleeps with anyone but; eventually, Boyle and Horsley also have a go at it. Apparently, Horsley is a semifunctional bisexual. He’s very receptive to attention.
After the storm come the prostitutes. He claims he spent £100,000 on more than 1,000 prostitutes. (He had a lover he once liked, but at this point she gave nothing more than “good headache.”) He then says he spent more than £100,000 on crack.
And then, the heroin. Ultimately, Horsley’s arch lifestyle begins to disintegrate in that most sincere of all places: rehab. It turns out there are no dandies in foxholes.
There he learns that his “self-creation” was an “act of obscure revenge” against his father. (Wait — you too?)
This is the perfect book for every fey, victimized 20-year-old with dyed black hair in your family. It is as wonderfully lewd as any trip to an Edinburgh chip shop. It’s also so epigrammatic as to crawl into itself. His grandmother “died at 82 of embroidery.” And: “The problem with compassion is that it is not photogenic.” And: “I regret everything. But so what? At least I have cause.”
Somewhere past the halfway point Horsley begins to show self-awareness beyond all this stylishness. He hates his traitorous, drug-ravaged body; he loves money because it is power; and he really, really likes himself. “I had fallen in love with myself,” he writes. “To have a girlfriend would now be unfaithful.”
Of course, this sincerity and insight undermine his desire to be all style and no substance. One problem: the memoir proclaims at its start that “what follows is true,” but elsewhere in the book Horsley describes his time as a journalist (he wrote a column for The Erotic Review) as a process of “locking yourself in a room and inventing characters and conversations which do not exist.” In 2006, in The Independent’s ABC Magazine, he questioned the task of his work on the memoir at all: “Why lock yourself in a room and invent conversations?”
In any event, in 2000, Horsley definitely ventured off for the Philippines, where he was crucified, an event that brought him infamy over in London. His accounts of this, and of diving with sharks, are spectacular. And after that, not much happens, because apparently he spent most of the last decade writing his memoirs. Like his forthrightness about vulgarity and degradation, that’s admirable. He labored long over something that looks dashed off; most addiction memoirs look quite the opposite.
Choire Sicha is a columnist for The New York Observer.