Larry Harrison’s Glimpses of a Floating World is one of those books that perfectly inhabits a time and place. In this case, it’s 1960s London, specifically Soho at the time when heroin was still available over the counter with a prescription. The title refers to an old name for the red light district of Tokyo, and refers to “the transient nature and suffering that defines our earthly existence” – a perfect set of allusions for this book that effortlessly marries the magical and the sleazy in a hymn to a lost London.
The book tells the story of Ronnie Fizz, a seventeen year-old outsider who wants desperately to be cool, to be part of the buzzing, vibrant world that pulses through the neon around him. He reminds me a lot of the hapless, headstrong, and a little hopeless Johnny in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Ronnie is a loser and yet Harrison makes us care for him in two very clever ways. By the elegiac vision we have through Ronnie’s eyes – he is the perfect unreliable protagonist, desperately in love with a London that we know full well is squalid and corrupt. And yet we see it through his besotted eyes and feel his longing with him. Harrison also taps into something many of us know all too well – the feeling of desperate outsiderdom, the longing to belong.
This is a fabulous character piece in which Soho, the setting for at least half my poems, is as much the protagonist as Ronnie. But it is much more than that, a simmering thriller that inhabits the underworld that follows the flow of heroin replete with fully-drawn larger than life characters. The tension, and the beating heart of the story, comes from Ronnie’s utterly dysfunctional relationship with his father, an abusive, largely absent Scotland Yard Officer mired in the corrupt world we all know from Kray mythology.
Harrison has made a career as Professor of Addiction Studies, and he weaves his learning seamlessly into the book, playing with our stereotypes and preconceptions about addiction and abuse within a completely believable world. He treads the fine line between understanding, empathy, and romanticism with pitch perfect balance, and in doing so makes us question the way we handle those boundaries.
Reviewed by Dan Holloway
Available in Kindle format
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