There is danger in KS Silkwood’s King of the Jungle, the story of a misanthropic never-been artist working as a park-keeper who discovers vulnerability and rediscovers his humanity — namely, the temptation to descend into sub-Good Will Hunting soppiness. Silkwood’s literary debut shrewdly dodges easy sentimentality, instead inviting readers to join his hero as he tends to a stinking piss-soaked London park and monologues on hookers, homeless pals, junkies, officious councilmen and art. With perhaps some slight aspirations toward Irvine Welsh, Silkwood colours the unnamed London public garden and its regulars in vivid shades of shit. To whit: “I heard him splutter and wheeze and snot, and I knew then that he was okay. He stunk. Dry piss, wet piss, a sliver of diarrhoea. The dribble of Special Brew vomit leaking from his nostrils. Ha! He’s all right!”
We learn that our correspondent, a thirty-something former painter whose friends and contemporaries have found success in the art world (the kind of people who are likely to use “creative” as a noun) has largely withdrawn from circulation in order to work as a custodian, a Gatsby to tramps and prostitutes. Not because he finds constance in his garden, but as a symbolic gesture, a parting shot to a community satisfied in mediocrity and the ordinary. Though largely unsaid, there is an underlying sense he believes that by choosing to be the man who collects cans and scrapes alcoholics off benches he is deliberately robbing the nation of a generational talent — a delusion common to recent graduates, but unseemly for an individual careening towards forty.
“Just look at this. I really can’t be bothered with the work on show. It’s so nondescript and banal, it’s merged with the white of the walls; and that’s not a good thing, you know, not like Rauschenberg or something. Let’s have a look at these lesbians instead.”
The novel’s pleasing episodic staccato skips from incident to incident, cleverly cutting in such park-related traumas as a coterie of hobos who stagger from gate to bin to bush to underbrush, alongside London art parties, where a coterie of chancers stagger from bar to street to brawl to a double-bed in the suburbs. Silkwood strikes a neat balance in his movement between these worlds, producing a hugely entertaining and very funny counterpoint that excoriates both lifestyles.
So engaging is the prose that you’ll forgive the pacing of the novel, where the material plot appears in fragments over the first half and is only really explored in earnest towards the very end. King is far more successful when playing to its strengths — vignettes and character study — than when it half-heartedly connects these back to romantic entanglements. Happily, this does not detract from the overall effect of Silkwood’s sort-of polemic, wherein he lays into the London arts scene with the kind of vicious contempt usually reserved for investment bankers. An ideal Father’s Day gift if you’re on difficult terms with your father.