Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Oh Dad! A Search For Robert Mitchum

Oh Dad! A Search for Robert Mitchum is not your conventional biography. In fact, it is not actually a biography at all. This is no objective account of the life and times of a Hollywood icon, but rather a subjective quest for a definition of masculinity.

The book is as much about Lloyd Robson as it is about Robert Mitchum. The Hollywood actor - a paradigm of machismo - serves as a link between the author and his own father. A troublesome three-way relationship that underpins the whole book.

But Oh Dad! is also a travelogue, a journey down the Eastern seaboard of the USA, as Robson goes in search of the undiscovered poetic Bob Mitchum. Yes, you heard right - Mitchum, badass actor par excellence, brawler, hop-head - was also a secret poet. He had a sensitive side, bless him, and Robson is determined to track it down.

The book really comes into its own as Robson hits the road - and the railroad track - in a bid to uncover Mitchum's little-known early life. The questing dynamic is perfectly suited to Robson's prose style. As a poet he has an acute sense of rhythm, which is here employed to excellent effect in conveying pace and movement. Oh Dad! has a strong beat sensibility, and even harks further back to proto-beat writers such as WH Davies. Mitchum himself, we learn, endured a stint as a hobo.

There is a strong gonzo dimension to this work too. As Robson ponders notions of masculinity he manages to frequently get stoned; or pissed; have sex with various women; become embroiled in the occasional argument; and rip-off a NY street drug dealer. Not the kind of exploits you ordinarily find in the pages of your average travel book.

Robson's engaging narrative is interweaved throughout with Mitchum quotes and dialogue excerpts. This makes the book textually interesting, but it also demonstrates what a dry and self-deprecating wit Mitchum actually had:

"You know what the average Robert Mitchum fan is? He's full of warts and dandruff and he's probably got a hernia, too. But he sees me up there on the screen and thinks, "If that bum can make it, I can become president." I bring a ray of hope to the great unwashed."

In fact, humour is one of Oh Dad!'s great strengths. Not only do we enjoy Mitchum's bon mots and Robson's various scrapes but also some great observational writing on cultural difference. There are ongoing jokes concerning your average American's ignorance of Wales, and the practise of rolling your own cigarettes, for example. With his finely-tuned poet's ear Robson is also able to pick out the rhythm and diction of the local vernacular, particularly down South, and playfully incorporate it into his own narrative.

As Robson gets deeper into his journey Mitchum himself threatens to burst out of the writer's subconscious and take corporeal form. There are even hints of mischievous night time appearances by the Hollywood legend. And it is on the fringes of a murky Florida swamp - through which Mitchum once escaped the long arm of the law - that the author finally confronts the object of his obsession. Robson - just about - manages to steer clear of an Iron John-type mythopoetic finale, and carry off what is an ambitious attempt to bring together travel and biographical writing.

*Oh Dad! A Search for Robert Mitchum is on sale now and is published by Parthian books.