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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Street Sleeper

Geoff Nicholson

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To purchase Street Sleeper

Title: Street Sleeper
Author: Geoff Nicholson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987
Length: 186 pages
Availability: Street Sleeper - US
Street Sleeper - UK
Street Sleeper - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : a few bumps in the road, but good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail . 2/4/1987 Val Hennessy

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's a load of bollards, hugely entertaining, very Rabelaisian and a great debut in pumping gas. Could become a cult book, particularly among Beetle fans." - Val Hennessy, Daily Mail

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Street Sleeper shifts back and forth between several characters and storylines (many eventually crossing and/or overlapping), but the central character is Barry Osgathorpe and the novel begins with him disappointing his fiancée Debby by announcing:

     'It's no good,' said Barry Osgathorpe, 'we shan't ever be married because I've decided that I must go out "on the road" and find myself.'
       He's found the perfect vehicle for his quest-adventure, a battered Volkswagen Beetle that he calls' Enlightenment' -- and, to go with his hoped-for transformation into a 'Zen Road Warrior' he decides to go under a different name: "Call me Ishmael", he now suggests. With it also comes a change in attitude: he used to be a librarian, and:
For ten years in that bloody library everyone thought I was just a wimp, just a nothing. Nobody's ever going to think I'm an easy touch again.
       On his quest he meets Marilyn, a young damsel repeatedly in various kinds of not quite distress -- she isn't quite who she seems at first, but is looking to gather life-experience for the novel she hopes to write, and to escape, in one form or another, her domineering father and promiscuous lush mother, and Barry easily falls for her -- and "Fat Les, the Vee-Dub King", a mechanic whose one great passion is Volkswagens, which he is skilled at souping up. Fat Les is entertained by Barry-Ishmael: "You're a weird bugger, aren't you ?" he finds, but will come to take on an important support role. And others are even more taken by Ishmael: he gains an acolyte of sorts named Davey, and the members of a somewhat aimless commune he visits, Fox's Farm, almost immediately want him to become their guru:
We believe in clearing the mind of babble, and it's obvious you feel the same way. You're only concerned with fundamentals -- lifestyle, ideology, how to get your Volkswagen repaired, the nitty-gritty.'
     Ishmael hadn't even been trying.
     'We think you're a very wise man. We think you're something special. We wondered if you might stay here for a while, be a kind of spiritual guide.'
       To his credit: "This seemed a bit extreme, even to Ishmael". In any case, his focus becomes more on extricating Marilyn from her situation -- a back and forth that spirals rather out of control into an all-out clash of class and ideologies, and considerable destruction -- a series of escalating confrontations culminating in a very pitched battle, complete with Fat Les-tuned-up road warrior Beetles. As Marilyn observes: "Sometimes I feel as though I am living through a modern-day myth".
       The secondary characters and stories also come to play a role, including an early wayward misadventure of Barry's that comes back to bite him, courtesy of a failing journalist, Renata, who spends much of the novel trying to fill a column on 'Fifty Facts You Always Wanted to Know About the Volkswagen Beetle' but ultimately lucks into that scoop she can leverage into something much better. Along the way to would-be enlightenment, Ishmael also enjoys various incidental awkward situations, and also has a rather disturbing LSD trip.
       And, aside from all the present-day situations and episodes, Nicholson intersperses the novel with bits of history of the VW Beetle -- the car designed by Ferdinand Porsche and encouraged by Hitler. These short bursts that include the foreign takes on the VW -- the British, after World War II; the first efforts to sell the thing in the US -- are somewhat off-topic, but interesting digressions in their own right.
       The laid-back, go-with-the-flow attitude of most of the characters -- Marilyn's trigger-happy (and, of course Rolls Royce-driving) father is an exception -- make for an amiable story even where things get completely (and violently) out of hand. Just as by the end neither the authorities nor the media really believe the spin Barry/Ishmael has put on the story (he has a lot to explain ...), so also readers are willing to accept the absurdity of the whole story. Things fall neatly (if also messily, in other ways) into place, as Nicholson has artfully designed his story and Barry's search for enlightenment, and even as Barry would seem to be easily embraced nearly everywhere he goes as some sort of leading light he, too, winds up ... exactly where, and how, he started (though fiancée Debby has added to her repertoire, to his immense satisfaction -- in one of the novel's details that hasn't aged so well).
       The VW Beetle is both the every-man car and the one for the individual and Nicholson uses it effectively as a canvas for his characters -- notably also emphasizing the fact that you often don't know what is actually under the hood (Fat Les gets a lot more out of his VW than appearances would suggest), and that appearances can be changed beyond the basic, unchangeable chassis. So, for example, Enlightenment is ultimately painted all black, and leads into battle a small battalion of other (well, four) VWs which Fat Les has transformed:
     The windscreens were bullet-proof, the cars had monstrous all-terrain tyres, bumpers made out of steel tubing, hub-caps featuring Boadicea-style spikes, engines so big they burst from their compartments. Sheets of ugly, tattered metal had been welded on here and there as protective shields. They were ugly, deformed and dangerous.
       Yes, Ishmael's quest for enlightenment is hardly solely spiritual, much less peaceful. His attempt to find himself certainly isn't short of experience -- but part of the success of Nicholson's novel is the easy shrug with which Barry and his acquaintances accept come what may. And a lot does come.
       Nicholson gets the tone down right in telling what is, after all, a very far-fetched tale, making for an amusing little adventure tale (with a few off-key notes) poking good fun at most everyone and everything along the way. And, yes, readers learn some interesting history about Volkswagen along the way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 October 2019

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Reviews: Geoff Nicholson: Other books by Geoff Nicholson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Geoff Nicholson, born in Sheffield in 1953, has written a flurry of novels. He lives in London and New York.

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