Telling tall tales should be an Olympic sport. From childhood we learn to weave what is false and true together so that a story becomes more plausible or more interesting. Who reading this has never embellished a story to make yourself sound more interesting or perhaps passed off someone elses experience as your own? If you had to go to one place that you could hear an out and out nonsense story, where would it be? I know; the parlour of any old toot; the Public House. In most older pubs you will find a regular old man who sits at the bar drinking the same larger top all day regaling anyone who would care to listen about his job driving for Manweb, or how he used to know a drunk Scotsman who worked at the docks. Nick Revell has taken the concept of tall tales and written a book around it with The House of the Spirit Levels.
The scene opens in the jungles of deepest Central America. Although simple people the locals still enjoy many trappings of the modern lifestyle, including a fully stocked bar and Sky sports. The only pursuit that usurps footy is a good story. Therefore, when the local Priest brings an Englishman into to the bar a revered hush falls over the inhabitants. It turns out that the Priest and his voodoo Priestess wife have made a bet whether this man will kill himself or not. Therefore, we travel back in time as Tony Hardstaff, the bloke in question, tells the story of how he came to be in the Central American Rainforest. Its a story that contains lost loves, Yorkshire, family rifts and gun toting Gorillas.
Upon reading Sprit its hard to understand if its meant to be a straight comedy adventure or a surreal fantasy. This is because the two parts of the story are told by different narrators. The modern section is told by the bar man and how he reflects on Tony and his stories, whilst the past is actually Tonys stories. What Revell does well is show how people lying during storytelling affects the narrative and trust that a listener has. It soon becomes clear that elements of Tonys tale are based in fact, whilst others are clearly made up. Determining which is which is left to the reader.
To some extent I felt that this approach was a success. By allowing Tony to be a fantasist Revell was able to lace his story with far more surreal humour than most. The nearest author I have come across is Robert Rankin, and unfortunately this book suffers from the same issues that Rankins often do poor direction. As a large part of the book is Tonys tale I felt that it should have been slightly stronger. The surreal humour is often very good and I did find the book funny, however, the actual narrative was little more than a way of Revell getting from comedy set piece to comedy set piece.
The issue I have with the more out-there parts of the book are only increased with the better quality parts that surround the bar. The bar tender is a lot funnier and his sections comment more on the locals and their quirks. I found the sub story of the Priest and his wife infinitely more appealing than Tonys life. This leads to a second issue and that is the character of Tony himself.
Tony is a miserable sod and an annoying one at that. He takes advantage of others and the only reason that the book is not ruined by the character is because Revel is able to make parts funny. I often read books which centre around an anti-hero, but I find the hard drinking PI a lot more sympathetic than the dull pasty Englishman. To make such a flawed character appealing the author really has to work to make them funny or brave. Authors like Christopher Brookmyre and Colin Bates have shown that twits can be good to read about. Revell fails to achieve the right balance of laughs and patheticness and the book really suffers its lucky that the other characters are so much better and that parts made me laugh.
Overall, Night of the Spirit Levels is an ambitious failure that just manages to be worth a read. Revell has failed to balance the surreal and the real and it makes the plot confusing. However, having shown in his other excellent book Night of the Toxic Ostrich and his work on Drop the Dead Donkey Revell is genuinely funny. The elements of the book outside of Tonys story are particularly good, but even the situations that Tony finds himself in are well written and fun. If the book had as strong a plot as it did jokes it would be a must read. Instead you are left with a messy, yet funny book, which passes the time averagely.
Author: Nick Revell
Price: Only available 2 hand 1p + P£P from amazon uk