Just finished reading Roberto Bolaño’s immensely popular The Savage Detectives. The book chronicles a marginal branch of the Mexican Poetry scene in the mid-70s. Outsider Poets. Who knew the American reading public cared about such things?
The book has three distinct parts. The first and third are told by way of diary entries from a 17 year old, up-and-coming poet who is enamored by and immerses himself into the world of the visceral realist poetry scene. By far these are my favorite sections of the book because they really capture the excitement of what it’s like to be a late teen, diving headlong into a scene—a world of art, parties, politics and sex unfolding before your eyes. Garcia Madero, the narrator of this section, falls deep into the scene and the course of his life starts shifting in an unexpected way. When The Savage Detectives is on, it captures the feeling of that precious turning point in one’s life when one discovers the path that they want to walk down. Few books manage to capture that feeling so well. Similarly, as the book progresses and the scene dies and most of its participants move on, The Savage Detectives expertly captures the melancholy hangover blues of a fading scene.
That said, the book’s middle section, an oral history (think Legs McNeil) of the scene’s two touchstone poets is long, long, long. The history is told from the perspectives of friends, acquaintances, and accomplices of Arturo Belano, a thinly veiled portrait of Roberto Bolaño, and his compadre, Ulises Lima. So many characters, so many places, so many microscenes, so many references to literary scenes that I know nothing about, and ultimately so many sideways glances at Belano and Lima. In a way we learn much about them, but ultimately in an elusive way. They drive the narrative, but we never get inside their heads. Instead, they are a composite of what the world thinks of them, and for me, I felt we never got to the heart of these characters.
Ultimately The Savage Detectives is rewarding in many ways, but a little long-winded in others. When it’s on, it’s a great read, but at times it’s a slog.