Lit-urday: Burning Down George Orwell's House

Whisky? Check. Women? Check. Weather? Check. Werewolf? Uh oh.

Lit-urday: Burning Down George Orwell's House

It's been a long week, and now you deserve to have one day when you can curl up with a good book – let's call it Lit-urday. Let's maybe also pull out a bottle of 15-year-old single-malt Scotch from the Isle of Jura, because here's just the tale to accompany it …

Burning Down George Orwell's House

by Andrew Ervin

Soho Press; 288pp.; $26

There are many descriptions of single-malt Scotch whisky and the copious imbibing of same in this darkly funny debut novel from Andrew Ervin.

They make perfect sense, those Scotch descriptions, because the story takes place mostly on the Isle of Jura – a rocky knob of a place that is 1) just across the water from Scotland’s famed whisky-producing coast of Islay and 2) where the writer Eric Blair AKA George Orwell created his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four.

They make perfect sense, too, because this Ervin novel can be described as one might describe a dram of lovely tipple, lauding its evocative notes of Withnail and I and Cold Comfort Farm, its faintest trace of Bright Lights, Big City, even, and all of these conspiring with a leisurely plot of calamity and introspection and vivid characters to leave readers definitely entertained and very likely enchanted by the tale.

The tale? An affable but somewhat mercenary fellow named Ray Welter hits paydirt in the Chicago ad biz, suffers a crisis of conscious concurrent with the break-up of his once-happy marriage, and escapes the modern always-on milieu to spend six months in Orwell’s former residence on the Isle of Jura. That’s where he’ll be able to – so he thinks – get back to nature, lick his wounds, clear his spiritual palate, and drink the hell out of as much single-malt brilliance as he can get a hold of.

Thing is, just as when people go on holiday by mistake, there are darker and deeper and potentially fatal underpinnings to be found in the most bucolic of settings. Too many locals are the antithesis of any “Highland hospitality,” one sociopath in particular is out for our protagonist’s blood, and the cold cold rain’s even more relentless than the whisky. Also, the un-wired nature that Welter’s trying to get back to in order to clear his spiritual palate? It might actually be wanting to lick his wounds. It, in the form of a possible werewolf. For which there is a drunken, fully-loaded hunt near the story’s end.

Bonus: The sociopath’s got a fetching young daughter who gets entangled with Welter from the get-go. Bonus: There’s just enough Orwelliana to spice the narrative. Bonus: You could drink along with the defrocked ad man as he downs shot after shot, but you won’t have to replicate the bleeding blisters his ineptly shod feet accrue nor ingest a meal of haggis so abominable that … well, we’ll let you get to it yourself, then, shall we?

Verdict: This first novel, by the man who previously brought us the collection Extraordinary Renditions, is a whisky-soaked hoot worth hollering about.

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Burning Down George Orwell's House, Andrew Ervin, Soho Press, book review, single-malt whisky, Oil Hogg, Texas Book Festival 2015

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