[Review] The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow


A Welcome Discovery

The great thing about starting Bent Bindings, is that I’ve become exposed to a larger variety of books. My world of reading has definitely expanded.

I would say, too, that I had I not started this web site, I most likely never would have come across The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow by Pal H. Christiansen. It is originally a Norwegian work, recently translated into English. Given this, the odds of the book finding its way onto a local bookshelf were already slim.

While the first sentence of the book (‘Some men make a big deal of the fact that women need a bit of extra time getting ready in the morning’) would have passed my litmus test, the strange almost biblical picture on the cover and the esoteric description of the book (about a man’s obsession with the band a-ha) probably would have made me put it back on the bookstore shelf.

That would be a shame, too, because I would have missed out on a very enjoyable, very humorous reading adventure.

The Story

The story is difficult to describe, but I would start by saying that it is really nothing like the story described by the snippet on the dust cover of the book. While the band a-ha does play a part in the story, it’s mostly about the day-to-day happenings of aspiring writer Hobo Highbrow.

During the course of the story, he loses his job, almost loses his girlfriend, and has a very difficult time tracking down his own couch. It’s definitely a character study, and the somewhat warped perspective of the main character (who is also the narrator of the work) takes the reader on an interesting trip.

A Man Fun to Read About

One of the strange things about fiction, is that oftentimes what makes a good story would make a terrible life. Divorce is dramatic, but I’d rather not go through one. Death and dying can pull you along in a story, but aren’t necessarily something you’d like to deal with on a daily basis. And sometimes, characters you love to read about, might not necessarily be people you’d like to hang out with.

I find this to be the case with Hobo Highbrow. Throughout this book, Hobo Highbrow reminded me of Igantius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. In both of the works, the main character has a slightly skewed version of his own place in the world. They both think that they are responsible for a lot more than they really are, but in some cases don’t realize how much of a part they actually did play in the events around them.

Within both books, this disparity between reality and perception can lead to some very funny moments, and in Hobo Highbrow those moments are scattered throughout the book. I don’t really want to describe any of the great moments, as it would take away a bit of the joy of them. However, I think at least part of the character of Hobo can be shown in an early quote from the book as he heads home, eager to continue writing his great novel:

I was determined to go back to my flat and get on with my writing as soon as I got off the tram. On the way, however, I stopped to glance in through the window of the Four Hens. There wasn’t anyone I knew inside, just a couple of old codgers, each drinking a beer.

I had recently read the proofs for an article about how important it is to drink sufficient liquid in hot weather. Otherwise things can get pretty nasty for the intricate mechanism universally known as the body. The article recommended that you consume 10-15 litres of liquid a day, but I took this with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless…

Nevertheless, our undaunted hero goes into the bar and proceeds to take care of at least one pint, if not possibly more “off stage.” This ability to reason himself into and out of any guilt or even self awareness is what makes the character so interesting.

The writing also reflects the character of Hobo, as it is, in its own way, light and airy and not really fully responsible for itself. A conversation between Hobo and a “friend” hints to us what the author expects of his readers:

‘I understand,’ I said. ‘My advice is to not reveal everything to your reader. Let them do a bit of the work themselves.’

This trick of not revealing everything also makes for some humorous moments as there are large gaps of time and place missing from the mind of Hobo (and the descriptions that the reader is given). His strange pursuit of his own couch throughout the book is one of the side effects of this.

Now, on the counter side, there are some slow spots to the story, and it does develop in almost a haphazard way, which can be somewhat distracting. The sections that deal with a-ha were probably my least favorite, as they took focus away from the main character in an odd way.

Overall, this way a very enjoyable book, and one I will probably return to again, as I’m sure there were some things I missed along the way. I try to work hard as a reader, but sometimes I get lazy. That’s one of the great things about books — you can always re-read them.

As for me, I’m off to make sure I get enough liquid for the day. Cheers!

Grade: B+
Who would like this book: Fans of A Confederacy of Dunces, and anyone who likes a humorous character study
Who would not like this book: Readers who don’t want to work too hard. It does demand that you pay attention to what’s going on, so it’s probably not the best “beach read.”

Note: This book was sent to me as a review copy. While I try not to let this alter my review, I feel that it is only fair, in there interest of full disclosure, to let you know.

7 thoughts on “[Review] The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow

  1. I found your comments really interesting, especially as I lived with Hobo in my head for the six weeks it took to translate the novel.

    Although he can be frustrating at times, he’s genuinely a bit of a scoundrel (!) and I found that working through the book so much he grew more and more on me as a figure.

    I personally love the references to Hamsun (a very famous Norwegian author from the C20th) and the way the novel plays around with the idea of what it is to want to be famous. Hobo believes the world outside Norway is bigger and shinier but really he just has to look at the world around him to see what’s really important.

    If you’re new to Norwegian literature, I recommend Lars Saabye Christiansen. He’s a contemporary writer and outstanding.

  2. Jon — Thanks for the comments. I imagine as I re-read the book, I’ll learn more about Hobo, as I’m guessing you did with your extensive re-reading of the book. When it comes to translations, I always figure if I never think about it being a translation while I’m reading it, then it’s a good translation. I never once thought about this book being a translation. In fact, there were a couple places where some well-Anglicized idioms caught my attention. Great job, and thanks again for commenting.

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