Gregory Simpson is thirty and trying to quit, keeping ten fingers glued to a keyboard in order to fight their incessant ache to hold a burning paper tube filled with dead leaves. In twenty entries in twenty days for twenty to a pack -- one word for each cigarette inhaled over the course of ten smoke-filled years -- he examines his life in tense, withdrawal-induced fits and starts: the friendships cemented and defined by nicotine; the intimate relationships crushed or stifled; the acrid, immoral and rebellious satisfactions. But with strength of purpose and improved concentration comes the sobering revelation that his habit is more political than personal. Even if he kicks, Gregory realizes, he's still living in a tobacco world.
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At 30, Gregory Simpson, son of a tobacconist and member of the smokers-only Suicide Club, decides to kick the habit. The incentives are all there, beginning with the prospect of living longer than his dead cigarette f(r)iend, Theo. On the other hand, what is he to do with his hands, his anger, and 104-year-old Walter, who keeps knocking over his ashtrays? Worse, how will the Company--which has financed his addiction and monitored his surprisingly good health--react? Writing a memoir (in which nicotine and smoke have the largest part) might quell Gregory's craving, keep his hands occupied, and put off mortality: "I have a vague but insistent memory of Miss Bryant in English Composition teaching us that the narrator can never die. That if the narrator died at the end of the story, then how could he possibly tell it?" He hopes she's right. On the other hand, someone asks him, "If you took up writing to give up smoking, how are you going to give up writing?"
Richard Beard's playful first novel is full of elegant observations about the rituals of tobacco and of another equally important addiction: love. For Gregory, foreign films have hopelessly intertwined sex and smoke. His first girlfriend takes him to a series "where a sign in the toilet said No Smoking Rauchen Verboten Ne Pas Fumer Non Fumare while the screen filled with unrepentant images of the twentieth century's most proficient smokers.... I saw nobody die of lung cancer, not on screen. Nobody even coughed or had a sore throat, except perhaps Marlene Dietrich."
Intercutting present woes and nicotine nostalgia, Beard has fashioned a hyperimaginative and moving novel of obsession. Louis MacNeice famously remarked of Auden, "Everything he touches turns to cigarettes," and the same can be said for most of X20's characters, down to Bananas the cat. Bananas's desire is so great that he ends up with his own tobacco pouch, which he carries with him from living room to laboratory: "It was a long time since he'd been satisfied with the delicate inhalation of ambient air above ashtrays." --Kerry FriedAbout the Author:
Richard Beard was born in 1967. X20 is his first novel.
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