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William Boyd: Stars and Bars

This is the first novel Boyd wrote after becoming a full-time writer. It tells the story of Henderson Dores, a Englishman sent by his employers, an art auction company, to the Deep South of the United States to purchase a fabulous art collection from an American millionaire. The basis for much of the novel is that this part of the world is as alien to Dores as if he were on Mars. He doesn’t understand their speech or their behaviour. Of course, they are somewhat exaggerated, stage Southerners with all the eccentricities you would expect from some Gothic novel or, better still, some 1960s horror film. The whole thing descends into farce when the paintings disappear and a band of gangsters go after Dores, thinking he has stolen them.

It all started badly when his American wife had left him when she found him sleeping with the next door neighbour. Arriving in New York, he is greeted by a taxi driver who says Fuck England, a strange man on the street who tells him the furrier at midnight thinks his hands are full of clouds and the first words he hears from the woman who will become his tough New York girlfriend are I’m not the fucking hatcheck, numbnuts. But down South, it is worse, much worse, as everything goes wrong. Indeed, ending up in New York in the early hours of the morning wearing only a cardboard box, as he does, seems almost like bliss.

Does it work? Not really. Boyd wants to have his extended joke and lays it on very thick with his exaggerated portraits of Southerners, Mafiosi, New York art world types, tough New York women, aggressive taxi drivers and other assorted resident loonies. While it may well be that some of these characters are only mildly exaggerated, Dores himself is your typical effete, stuck-up Englishman and, together, the Limey out of his depth and the weird and wicked Americans are amusing but really no more than that.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Hamish Hamilton