Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation was Martin Millar’s first published novel. In the US, it appears that we are getting Millar’s books in something like a reverse order, starting with the brilliant The Good Fairies of New York, then the equally enjoyable Lonely Werewolf Girl and Suzy, Led Zeppelin & Me. After these three wonderful books, Millar’s US publisher, Softskull Press, brought us the sordid tale of Alby Starvation.
It’s been worth the wait, because Millar’s trademark focus on the poor, the dreamers and the slightly unhinged is evident in his first novel. Small-time speed dealer Alby Starvation has unwittingly become something of a minor celebrity because he’s given up milk and found this has (somewhat) improved his health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the milk marketing board is not pleased. They blame the publicity surrounding Alby’s “cure” for depressing the sales of milk, and given that profits must be maintained, they hire a hitwoman to assassinate him. (This was written at the height of “Greed is Good” conservatism in the 1980s, when government agencies hiring thugs to do away with the inconvenient poor didn’t seem like much of a stretch.)
Alby is far from a saint or a anyone’s idea of a hero, but he does have a circle of friends and acquaintances in Brixton (at the time the last refuge for the young, wanna-be-gifted and broke in London) who depend on him for one thing or another — mostly a quick fix — but also for a more basic human need, companionship. This motley cast — drug addicts, dreamers, depressed shop managers, more-successful drug dealers, and a treasure-hunting professor — provide much of the charm and amusement of the novel with their dogged pursuit of various crazy dreams and schemes. Anyone who enjoyed Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (the book, not the movie) will enjoy the obsessive, slightly maladjusted personalities that populate Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation. Fans of The Good Fairies of New York will recognize Millar’s habit of showing us each character’s cherished plan or their tentative steps at living life on their own terms, and then gradually bringing each closer together until their individual paths either interlock in something approaching harmony or knock somebody else’s dream completely out of orbit.
Even though this is an early novel and some scenes and plotlines are a little raw, Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation still contains everything I love about Martin Millar, his warmth, his clear-eyed view of the basic decency of most people, his love of the dreamers who dare to look to improve their lot in life, and his ability to laugh at the insanity of our world.
Martin Millar’s blog.
Martin Millar’s latest book is Curse of the Werewolf Girl.
I helped interview Martin Millar over at jennIRL.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Milk, Sulphate & Alby Starvation from the publisher.