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The Lowlife by Alexander Baron

The Lowlife (1963)

by Alexander Baron

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The Lowlife (1963) is the third book I have read by Alexander Baron (1917-1999) and follows King Dido (1969) and The Human Kind (1953). I am now resolved to read all his work - he was a renowned London author and very popular in his day.

His first novel, From the City, from the Plough (1948), was a best seller. It was based on Alexander Baron's own war service, fighting across France from the Normandy D-Day beaches. Baron went on to write many London novels which were similarly based largely on personal experience and observation. From the City, from the Plough was the first of a WW2 trilogy. Baron also went on to write many London novels which were similarly based largely on personal experience and observation and which includes The Lowlife.

The Lowlife tells the story of Harryboy Boas, a Jewish veteran of WW2, a gambler, a womaniser, a philosopher, and a man of integrity and compassion. All Harry wants is to be left alone to enjoy his solitary life: either - and when his winnings from the dog track allow him the time and space - to eat, read, and meet women, or - when he needs cash - to work in short-term jobs to build up more stake money.

Harryboy is afflicted by guilt. Guilt about his own dead child who may never have existed and who, despite this uncertainty, Harry believes may been killed during the holocaust. Harryboy consciously tries to get away from his family, his religion, and the expectations of others. His sister Debbie, who has moved out to the the respectable suburbs, worries about him and wants to see him settled down and financially secure.

Although Harryboy is a confirmed loner he gets sucked into the life of his neighbours at his boarding house, and in particular Vic and Evelyn along with their young son Gregory. Evelyn, with her middle class aspirations, is the antithesis of Harry, and she cannot bear Hackney or the boarding house she is forced to live in. Harry's involvement with Vic, Evelyn and Gregory is the catalyst for Harry's life to unravel spectacularly.

This is an extraordinary novel that explores East London, tradition, guilt, snobbery, social history, families, loyalty, sacrifice, immigration, property, desire, racism, pride and all within the framework of an original and exciting tale about gambling, debt, and gangsters. Another splendid book by Alexander Baron who is deservedly getting republished and rediscovered by a new generation of readers.

5/5 ( )
  nigeyb | Apr 20, 2014 |
'A beautifully observed, understated study of an East End Jewish gambler...something of an underground cult'
added by Polaris- | editThe Guardian, John Williams
'Harryboy is a delicious and irrepressible companion...a tale as English as it is Jewish but with all the old Jewish virtues, humour, conscience and realism...It is what Harryboy would have wished - a winner'
added by Polaris- | editSunday Times
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[From the publisher's website - Black Sparrow Press:]

Harryboy Boas is a gambling man - the dogs. He lives in the quietly respectable streets of Hackney and keeps himself to himself. Until, that is, a new family moves into his building. Step by step, the life he has led - with its own strange kind of order - begins to unravel. He is drawn into a murky underworld where violence and revenge stalk those who can't come up with the money.
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