This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Ray Welter has no idea who he is anymore. A successful thirtysomething Chicago ad executive who made his name on a campaign that exponentially increased the sales of a gigantic, gas-guzzling, earth-destroying SUV, Ray has no idea how a human being with a conscience is supposed to sleep at night as an active member of Western society. Obsessed with George Orwell’s 1984, mid-divorce with an attractive and talented English professor whom he pushed away for no real reason, and desperate to make the world stop spinning so he can hear himself think for a little while, Ray sells or donates everything he owns and rents out a house on the tiny Scottish island of Jura for six months. The house in which Orwell wrote 1984, to be specific. He arrives on the island during a Biblical rain storm that abates only for brief moments during the months he spends there, and he quickly discovers his problems were not left at the Chicago airport. He is still Ray Welter, and he still doesn’t know who he is. The only difference now is that he has blisters all over his feet from walking miles through the island’s ubiquitous mud in subpar boots, a precarious relationship with the generally cantankerous native population headed by a man who might be a certified sociopath, a burgeoning friendship with the nubile daughter of said sociopath, and a serious drinking problem aided and abetted by Jura’s legendary single malt Scotch whisky. Oh, and there might be a werewolf lurking about.
Andrew Ervin’s debut novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House is a balancing act of dark and light, humor and dread. The prose is buoyed by caustic wit and clever gallows humor bobbing on waves of whisky, but the heart of the book is dark, tugging down our protagonist’s soul like Jura’s mud clinging to his boots. Ray’s existential dread fueled by a twenty-first century brand of hipster ennui and the low interest rate brand of failure his young adult mediocrity has provided him have worked together to erode his sense of self-worth and knock his internal compass for a spin. He isn’t happy, but he isn’t exactly sure what he’s unhappy about. Ray Welter is a cross between Ron Livingston’s character from Office Space and Edward Norton’s from Fight Club, and probably owned both on DVD before he left for Scotland. He knows he’s kind of pathetic. He thinks so himself. But he doesn’t actually hate himself. He just hates everything that defines his life for right now.
Ray’s problems at the book’s outset are firmly of the first world variety, and he is aware of the irony of complaining about his situation when he has the resources to move to Europe for six months to figure out his problems. Interestingly, the real problems don’t start hitting him till he gets there. He had expected to have some idyllic, profound experience on Jura, to be welcomed by quaint locals and arrive at some sort of ship-righting transcendent insight. Instead he gets soaked to the bone whenever he leaves the house, his feet are covered in blisters, he suffers a concussion, a beast that may or may not be a werewolf leaves an eviscerated dead animal on his porch every morning, and one of the locals might be trying to kill him. He drinks too much, can’t focus, can’t figure out his shit when he can focus, and drinks some more.
I can’t reveal the ending here of course, but it’s one worth discussing. I’ll confess I didn’t care for it initially. It felt like a cop-out, like Ervin didn’t know what else to do and just picked something that cleaned up the narrative. The longer I’ve sat with it the more I see the angle of truth behind it, a tradition being honored. More book and film protagonists than I can count have found themselves where Ray does at the beginning of this book. Do they surrender to the societal imperative to play the social/professional game the right way, or do they opt out of the game altogether? Which does Ray do at the end of Burning Down George Orwell’s House? Is he just walking in the footsteps of 1984‘s Winston Smith, or flipping off Big Brother? The answer is not as simple, or clean, as it initially seems.
“Even standing still, finally, Ray Welter’s body remained in motion and subject to inner tidal forces beyond his control. The rain felt more like the idea of wetness than anything resembling drops and it made its way inside his coat and new boots. Everything ached. He struggled to recall with any certainty what the word dry referred to. The rain fell upward. He wanted to cry.” – page 1
Ervin’s novel has a wonderful sense of place to it, setting its characters–and readers–in an isolated Scotland we don’t know well and are dependent upon Ervin to describe for us. He does this efficiently but entirely, not bogging us down in landscape but sinking us into the atmospheric and geological space of his story in such a way that we feel the mud tugging at our boots, we see a verdant green that gives us pause, we feel in our bones the ever-present rain and fog, we sense the totality of the blackness that blankets the hills and presses around the house at night, we know the gutteral pleasure of fine whisky when we finally get indoors. We feel all these things more than see them; they are part of the landscape if the prose itself as much as of the novel’s setting. The novel is established in its physical space more skillfully than any I’ve read in the last year.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House is highly entertaining. The book is clever and funny while tackling some of the very real internal struggles of the modern pre-middle-age adult. It isn’t without issues, but I’m not sure I would want it to be. Pour yourself a wee dram of Scotch and open Ervin’s debut novel today.