Of Sunshine and Bank Heists: A Review of ‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ by John Niven

Niven delivers hilarious satire juxtaposed with genuine heartfelt moments. Such is typical from this writer; everything he has published is fantastic in one light or another, yet this most recent effort is his most commercially accessible as the emphasis has shifted away from a protagonist of deplorable merits. Empathy is established without the effort required for the typical vice figure. The Sunshine Cruise Company is Niven at his best, and I don’t offer those words lightly.

The book opens with Susan Frobisher preparing a violent moment for the stage. She has been working with her local theatre for a matter of years, and we meet her in the midst of creating a makeshift eyeball for the gouging scene in King Lear. This Shakespearian reference serves as a thin veil over the topic of aging, which is satirized throughout the novel.

Susan’s husband is an accountant, and they’ve been married thirty years. He’s the solitary overseer of their finances, and has a secret flat that has been converted into a sex dungeon of sorts to accommodate a secret lifestyle. When Susan is called by police and brought to the flat to identify the body of her husband under the glow of a blue neon sign that spells out the word ‘RAPIST’ she comes to find that his infidelity serves as the means to much larger problems. Barry had Susan convinced that their finances were of stable conditions, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Surprise debt brought Susan into the reality that the bank sought to take her home.

Susan Frobisher and Julie Wickham have been the best of friends since adolescence. While Susan seemed to have had the good life with Barry, Julie can’t help but to feel some gratification that Susan’s misfortune has brought them closer to being equals in terms of monetary success. Julie works in an assisted living facility, and carries the regret of past failures dictating her contemporary circumstances. We met Julie at age sixty mopping up urine at work, wondering how such a low point has become her norm. The one friend she has made at work is the wheelchair bound Ethel. Ethel is crude, speaks her mind, and has the richest backstory that surfaces throughout the narrative in bits and pieces, “I was a singer… There was always work in the chorus line” (88). Ethel serves as the incarnation of Niven’s id (he always has a character to serve this indulgent/comic purpose). She says whatever she wants often to the disgust of her peers, and is damn funny in addition to the value of her insight. It’s when Ethel offers the advice, “it’s better to regret something you did do than something you didn’t” (89) that ultimately convinces Julie and Susan to go through with their plan to rob their small town bank and flee the country.

The episodes that follow are full of action, tension, comedy, and the tragedy of a past that is forever creeping into the present. Presented in third person, Niven highlights different characters in alternating chapters in order to present the parallel story of English police, as they make for consistent comic relief in clashing with their French counterparts. Again, the book delivers. I made the mistake of reading parts of the book in public, for I know I was caught laughing on more than one occasion.



An Evening with Saul Williams

A light rain brought forth little urgency while walking to the club. I arrived 90 minutes early, confused by the familiar. The Rumba Café turned out to be a place I had been once before. I failed to realize it until the interior of the bar had been recognized, and my thoughts wandered back toward that initial experience. The band of that evening has since dissolved, but such a moment was recalled with appreciation. Nostalgia doesn’t always sting, and I smiled.

The establishment was near vacant upon arrival, and I wasn’t sure how the crowd turnout was going to look, and feared our community wouldn’t accommodate a travelling poet. Would our general public misinterpret the notion of live spoken word? Would it be brushed off as a random hipster ode to my vegan bicycle? No. The people began to trickle in, business at the bar increased, and soon the place contained quite an audience for this intimate venue.

I’ve always associated quality spoken word to be most heavily impacted by delivery. Without backing music or gimmick, all that is left to impact beyond the literal word choice is the performativity of the speaker. Saul Williams often structures his words into narratives that blur the lines between philosophy and poetic grandeur, but it is his performative delivery that gives his words such appeal beyond logical musing. Much of his work is fraught with social commentary and complicated by personal reflections. Williams speaks on race, gender, misogyny, poverty, culture, society, and his considerations as it all fits into a narrative that begs an attempt at thoughtfulness and consideration.

Suddenly an entity appears on the stage in sunglasses, displaying a casual demeanor of calm as he rejects the humidity. His appearance brings the crowd to an instinctive silence, and without pomp or so much as an introduction he begins with the careful vigor of skilled aggression. The initial silence of the crowd bordered between respect and a collective hesitant tendency to break the ice with an artist.

Williams opened by reciting a selection of poems from his newest collection titled, US (a.), before moving on to singing, older poetic works, and even taking a few audience requests. He ran through an extended version of DNA, which included a great assortment of lyrics that were restructured for the musical compositions of his 2007 album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. It seemed as though it were all for me, and I am selfish enough to consider it for just a moment.

There weren’t many words expressed by Saul that didn’t impact the crowd with the weight of their blunt force honesty. In exploring narcissism as the cultural norm he describes the problem as “not just consumerism, but self-consumerism” (Williams). This notion furthers another theory on fear and consumption, “keep them afraid, and they’ll consume” (M. Manson), and directs it toward the concept that the product we’re being sold is our own narcissistic satisfaction as a means to complacency. But such is a notion to reject. Progress is revealed to be stagnant in complacent waters, as the poet continued, “sometimes we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, sometimes we must stand on their fucking necks” (Williams). There was a collective feeling that resonated in the audience of harmony through discord. Maybe that’s a bit much, but without bells, whistles, or even a beat… I felt something.

Danger exists when the problem is only acknowledged. An addict may be capable of admitting such a circumstance complicates their ability to associate, yet the vice may parallel with their sense of identity. Morbid pride forms when such flaws are embraced. Williams spoke near the end of his struggles with his view of women, which reminds me that acknowledgement of the defect is not equal to catharsis.

The delivery of Saul Williams comes second to his words. He is a poet, and such poets are dangerous. We should live to embrace such danger.