Wednesday, September 30

Blue Heaven – Joe Keenan

An amusing late twentieth century take on PG Wodehouse and the (unknown to me) Preston Sturges set in New York, Blue Heaven is the tale of how hapless Philip Cavanaugh is inveigled into playing a role in a brilliant but doomed plot, dreamed up by his friend and former lover Gilbert Selwyn.

Looking back on the whole ghastly affair, what surprises me most is that when news of Gilbert's plan first reached me I felt no sense of foreboding
whatsoever. I didn't blanch, I didn't tremble, nor did I rush to a pay phone to call an airline and enquire about low fares to the Canary Islands. My early warning system, usually so reliable where Gilbert is concerned, had completely shut down. I was at a gallery opening, you see, and cheap wine will do that to you.

Gilbert is in even more dire financial straits than the perpetually penniless Philip, and has been cut off by his usually indulgent mother on the strong advice of her second husband, Tony Cellini. It was when he attended the wedding of Tony's niece that that the perfect solution came to him – a wedding! All expenses paid for, and groaning tables of wonderful gifts. The clincher was when Gilbert discovered that it's a family tradition to open the gifts in front of the wedding party, thereby ensuring that everything's expensive. The only fly in the ointment is the little matter of Gilbert preferring men. Oh, and finding a bride. The former is glossed over as a phase, made easier by Gilbert's never actually coming out to his mother or step-father. The latter problem is solved when Gilbert discovers that the truly odious and conniving Moira Finch is in a similar situation it seems almost preordained.
What Gilbert didn't factor in was that for every step forward, the pair would find themselves in a more complicated situation than the one they'd left. Well, that and the fact that Moira's interests didn't completely align with Gilberts. Oh, and the pesky little issue of Tony being fairly high in the New York mob. And wherever goes Gilbert goes Philip, his eyes a little more open and his fear considerably greater than Gilbert's.
My copy of Blue Heaven is thick with tags where I've come across particularly amusing sections, but sitting down to write I realize that I risk reproducing half the book if I quote them all. The dialogue is crisp and funny, the plot is original yet true to its inspirations, and the characters are unique and well rounded. I grew quite fond, while maintaining a strong appreciation of her fictionality, of Moira's fashion designer friend, Vulpina, whose creative approach has to be curbed while maintaining a friendship – though we never get a clear picture of the dress she'd like to create, odd phrases like "all those wolverines" gives one enough of an impression! The supporting cast, particularly the Italian wing, is sizeable, and I didn't bother keeping close track of who related to whom, but that wasn't necessary. In any case, Keenan supplies beautiful vignettes:

Sammy Fabrizio was a large woman in her late fifties. She wore a tight strapless gown of electric blue and earrings which might, on a weaker woman, have caused spinal damage. Her hair was sculpted into a bizarre terraced beehive that made her head resemble an ancient Inca cliff dwelling. Her voice reminded me of a duck, and not a clean-living duck either but one that's been drinking gin and chain-smoking since it was a duckling.

Ah, it's the voice that tips the portrait into a masterpiece! If you like your fiction witty, funny and a little arch, Keenan is for you. I can't remember much about my first reading of Blue Heaven, some twenty years ago, in no small part because it coincided with such a large Wodehouse binge I haven't returned in the interim. I vaguely remember buying the sequel, Putting on the Ritz, which may well turn up in one of my boxes and will certainly be read. – Alex

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