White Trash
John King
(PM Press)
Ruby James is the nurse of our dreams. She works in a hospital in England, cares mightily for her patients, occasionally weeps when one of them dies.

    When you saw someone in a hospital bed, worried about what was going to happen to them, if they'd end up maimed or dead, they went back to being a child. The hardest hard man crumbled once you gave him a bed-bath. They relied on you same as they used to rely on their mums, and you developed a special bond. Their mums were never impressed with them acting up once they'd cleaned their bums as babies.

When she's not working, she's playing around in one of those English noise drink-clubs. She and her pals are in line, waiting to get into the Detroit, and she happens to see one of her ex-patients, Terry, who had been slashed in the face during a street fight. "They'd given Terry an injection and stitched him up."

    She held his willy for the bottle, helped him with something bigger. She smiled now, looking deep into his eyes, and it was like he could see what she was thinking and went purple . . . She felt sorry for all of them, everyone in the world, didn't blame anyone for anything, at the same time feeling good about life, knew there were jagged edges but that they just made it better, added flavour, made all the good things stand out.

"She couldn't stop herself reaching up and kissing him thank you on the side of his head, right on the scar, smelling his aftershave, she wanted to run her tongue along the skin and make everything better, all the people with scars on their faces and in their minds . . . "

Ruby is the nurse of nurses, the one you and I want taking care of us when they stick us in one of those places with the never-ending smell of disinfectant, urine, age, death. But she's no light-weight in the real world, outside of hospitals. When we first meet her, she's running from a police helicopter, one that had swung down to catch some juveniles. Because she happened to be there, they start to follow Ruby.

Why not? She loves the action, takes off running. She is in the neighborhood where she grew up, knows how to take evasive action, and within a trice, she scrambles away from the bobby-vans, disappearing into her favorite pub. This is no wimp.

But then there is Jonathan Jeffreys, the other main character in White Trash. He seems to have a job inspecting hospitals, to make sure they are not going over budget. Thirty years ago, you would have called him anal-retentive. I guess now, we would, in the lingo of our times, call him a man of the alt-right. His chapters in the book are given over to his musings on trade unions ("the politics of envy"), today's youth ("drunken teenagers talking utter rubbish"), a typical girl ("sleeping with men she didn't know and boasting about it in front of the whole nation"), blacks ("animalistic mating with strangers"), sports fans ("shaven-headed thugs kicking at each other in drunken rage") . . . and overall ("theft and drug abuse of the estate merged with violence on the high streets, the prostitution and lapsed morals . . . a lack of family values.")

This Jeffreys is what Samuel Johnson would call "a prig," but when he looks in the mirror, he sees nothing but a prim gentleman of a high moral regard, living in expensive hotels, eating elegant meals (by himself).

Except when he stops off at Candy's place. Where we get a slightly different picture of him. He found Candy as a result of an ad he placed in a local Meet Sheet.

    At first she had been unwilling to allow him this form of relief, but eventually he had managed to convince her. He had been surprised at first, a little irritated even. One hundred and fifty pounds was a hell of a lot of money for urinating in the mouth of a common tart, yet it proved that there was no honour in the rancid sprawl of this awful town.

She cleverly calls it his "piss stop." He finds that "a crude comment. But just what he would expect."

    He rezipped his trousers and stood for a few moments surveying the room and its cheap furnishings. It was a natural act and he felt better. Candy stood up. Her breath was truly wretched. Disgusting in fact. It was as if someone had urinated in her mouth. She retired to the bathroom and he heard the tap running. Two minutes later she returned and stood before him again. He leant forward and breathed in. Her breath smelt sweet now. Toothpaste and the strongest mouthwash available had done wonders.

His work at the hospital means that he runs into Nurse Ruby several times. During the course of the book we gradually get a picture of a someone who is a bit of a creep. Unfortunately, after one of his other odd acts (not of micturition but of eugenics), he drops a stolen watch in front of her and decides at once that she knows too much for her own good. He arranges to meet her later, and, sweet innocent that she is, he knocks her out with ether and takes her to his studio, where he. . .

I think I will leave it there, for the story hets up at this point, damn near runs off the page, and I would be the last to ruin it for you. If you have a chance to pick this one up, don't be put off by this Jeffreys character. You'll probably get a kick out of Ruby and her nurse friends and her nights out on the town, but I am fairly sure you won't be all that interested in the rants of Jeffreys which do go on and on.

And on: after his thirty pages in the early part of the book, you might want to either scream or give up. Take my word: hang in there.

§   §   §

White Trash first came out in 2001 under the Random House imprint as From Cradle to Grave and it definitely could have used an editor, for King has fallen in love with Jeffreys. Not with his character, god knows, but with the chance for him - - - John King - - - to show off. To paint a fairly nasty person all while pretending to that he might not be so bad. In other words, he uses an authorial distance to create a contrary: to paint for us a guy who, with his own stream-of-consciousness thoughts (ultimately, his acts) manages to appear as just a, well, a twit. And then, at the end, far more.

This, we claim, could have been done in far fewer pages, but King's tricks carry impedimenta . . . they fascinate him, the author, while driving the reader nuts. We want to ring him up early on, tell him, "Look. We get it . . . we get it. Now drop it. Let Ruby run on (she's fun), just edit the hell out of that jerk Jeffreys, O. K?"

Anyway, the last few pages are a treat, and even though we had to take such a roundabout journey to get there, it's vaut le voyage. Especially, the last shot of Ruby with Jeffreys, one of the best in the book:

    She cradled him in her arms the same as she would a man knocked down by a car and bleeding to death in the gutter or a woman lying in the precinct after a heart attack. She didn't care about the blood rubbing off on her, would never forget what had happened and never be the same again, but she was a nurse, a professional, and all this talk about control and order was stupid. Jeffreys had no control. He was dying and right back where everyone started. She wasn't going to think about the horror, there was plenty of time for that later, and when she looked into his eyes she saw arrogance, then fear, mixing and swishing around in a puddle. She couldn't know for sure, not really, heaven and hell meant nothing to her as she did her best to reassure him in his final seconds.

--- L. W. Milam
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