Odd Man Out

Odd Man Out movie poster

Working my way through the batch of books bought in the nice secondhand shop in Bexhill-on-Sea, I started reading Odd Man Out by F. L. Green, the 1945 novel on which the classic film by Carol Reed starring James Mason about an injured IRA man on the run is based.  I got about halfway through.  Then I stopped.  It just wasn’t good enough to occupy any more of my time.  It did, however, in its very unsatisfactoriness, raise some interesting questions for me.

Firstly, why is there so much guilt attached to not finishing books?  I knew that I wasn’t enjoying it that much about a quarter of the way in.  But I pushed on for another seventy-five pages.  

It’s not the same with other media.  If you’re watching a TV programme and it’s not entertaining you, you either switch channels or just turn it off.  

I think it’s because while TV is considered to be of little value by the silly people who judge others on how they spend their leisure time, turning it off is therefore seen as a victory against its perceived life-sapping, brain-rotting stranglehold on modern existence.  

Books, on the other hand, are seen as improving.  Books are good.  If you do not finish one, it has not failed you.  You have failed it.

It was only when I had absolutely convinced myself that Odd Man Out was indeed failing me and not the other way round that I found the inner strength to give up.  

What was wrong with it?  It was overwritten, mainly, with some sentences bordering on the embarrassing (‘Nobody who observed Johnny suspected what mysterious forces were moving and cogitating in him; for only when human eyes see the body’s dead husk is its emptiness eloquent of the mysterious powers that have departed forever from it.’).  It told a fair story but cluttered it up with far two many nondescript characters who could easily have been merged into several good ones, while plot developments turned out to be dead ends (injured man is picked up by cabbie, who then puts him back exactly where he found him).  The film takes the same material and turns it into gold.  Luis Bunuel once said you should only make films from bad books, and Odd Man Out supports this.

What is more interesting than the book itself is its print history.  Since its first publication, it was reprinted fairly regularly throughout the decades until 1991 (the edition that I was reading).  Since then, it has fallen out of print.  But not only that, it appears to fallen out of people’s minds.  The book goes virtually undiscussed on the Internet (the depository of all our memories).  No one’s reviewed it on Amazon.  It is on one person’s Virtual Bookshelf, but only to highlight differences between film and book.  No one, it seems, has any love to give it.

Yet this is odd, when you think about it.  The book was pretty much in print for over 45 years.  The works of such eminent authors as Kingsley Amis or J.P. Donleavy have much spottier publication histories.  Nevertheless, Odd Man Out seems to have left no impression at all.

I have a theory about this.  I think that books have, like radioactive substances, an inevitable rate of decay, in which their ability to communicate to readers fades over time.  

Some books’ decay is very slow, so slow, in fact, that they’ll probably only stop speaking to people when humanity itself evolves into a different species that has no need for the written word, as it will communicate entirely through the medium of nipple arousal (Needless to say, it will be a binary language). 

Other books have a much faster rate, their ability to touch people already spent before someone even has a chance to read it.  In between are books that speak to people for a period, but then just eventually burn out, and the fact that they ever meant anything to anybody is forgotten.  It seems that at some point in the last fifteen years or so, that happened to Odd Man Out.  

Oh well.  Wonder if there’s anything on telly.

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3 Responses to “Odd Man Out”

  1. Love the “literary half life” theory! There are plenty of writers considered greats in their time who are almost forgotten today, like Rosamund Lehmann. But it’s also possible to buck the trend: Richard Yates has not just been rediscovered, he has become a cultural icon, the inspiration for Mad Men and the cocktail revival. Similarly, the success of Embers and Journey by Moonlight has brought the Viennese fin de siecle culture back into the mainstream. It’s really the difference between fashion and style: it tends to be the most fashionable books of their time that plummet from grace, even become embarrassing — look at Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, or The Magus — whereas the stylish ones, while perhaps never fashionable, survive. You could argue the same, incidentally, in art: van Gogh, for example, didn’t speak to his own time but has proved his value ever since …

  2. Since you’re not interested in reading Odd Man Out anymore, would you be interested in parting with it? I’d be glad to take it off your hands.

  3. If you live in the UK, sure. Email me your address at richard@richardblandford.com and I’ll pop it in the post for you.

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