The Ones Nobody Knows: The Borribles

Sidney. Torreycannon. Vulgarian. Stonks. Chalotte. Napoleon Boot. Bingo. Oroccoco. Adolf. And Knocker, of course, Knocker.

I haven't read Michael De Larrabeiti's masterpiece The Borribles in probably twenty years, but I still know all their names. They lived in our minds as big as Han Solo, Frodo and John Carter, and to this day I can recall them with such clarity it makes me wonder what the hell IS GOING ON inside my brain.

Vulgarian, stomping exhaustedly into the Chief Rumble's bathroom. "All the way from the Stepney. Bloody miles."

Stonks holding the door open with his massive strength. The treachery of Napoleon Boot. Knocker's suspicion of the girls, Chalotte and Sidney. Oroccoco, from "Tooting, man, Tooting." It's all there. Hasn't gone anywhere.

Borribles, for those of you who aren't Glenn or Alex, are kids who never grow up, and live on the streets of big cities, stealing and fighting and trying to stay one step ahead of the Special Borrible Group of the London Police. Their mortal enemies are the Rumbles, humanoid rats who love nothing better to eat than fresh Borrible meat. When it's discovered that the Rumbles are planning an invasion of Borrible territory, the resourceful street punks assemble a Dirty Dozen (well, an Egregious Eight) to infiltrate the Rumble stronghold and eliminate the High Council of the Rumbles.

These few (plus a couple of hangers-on) make their way across a freakish, ghastly version of London where adults are perilous monsters, underground streams flow in grotesque, filth-caked channels and everywhere lurks danger, betrayal and death.

Few worlds have been evoked in fiction with the compelling vision of de Larrabeiti's London. Almost a separate character in its own right, it is foul and beautiful in the same view. We see the city mainly through Knocker's eyes, and his dispassionate view keeps the revolting nature of so much of it at bay enough for us to understand that this is home to him and his brethren. And as it transforms during the course of the story, it illuminates the emotional journey that all the Borribles are forced to undergo in the carrying-out of their quest.

Also, The Borribles has names. Cool names. Just look at them up there. Tell me those aren't some awesome names right there. There's cool names in the DEDICATION -- "For Whitebonce, Spikey and Fang." It's hard to resist a book with names like that, I gotta say. One of my favourite moments is when Knocker gives Adolf his new name: "Adolf Wolfgang Amadeus Winston!" Yeah. There's a bad guy named Flinthead. Tell me you don't want to see HIM come to a bad end.

Damn, I need to go read this again.

I just picked it up and discovered I'd totally forgotten about the map. There's a map of the few square miles of London that the epic takes place in -- from Battersea park to Wimbledon Common. So then of course I browse over to Google Maps and blow up the satallite photos of London and yeah, there it all is: Battersea Church Road, Fulham Power Station where Adolf joined up, Engandine Street where they fell into Dewdrop's clutches... sigh.

You know, I thought this would be easy. I thought, "I'll just write about how much I love these books. It'll be a snap." But it turns out I can't just write "I love this book" and be done with it.

WHY did this book captivate me so much? I mean, aside from the fact that it's so very very good?

Maybe because it's so hard. Bad things happen in this book, to people you've come to love. Things they don't deserve -- this is not a morality play where good is rewarded and evil is punished. De Larrabeiti's world is a nihilistic one, where no answers come to those who struggle, where death is neither consummation nor tragedy -- unless it happens to be your friend. The only real morality here is that of the Borribles themselves -- "If you're my friend, follow me around the bend." The Magnificent Eight (Ten) do what they do not ultimately out of any desire to do the RIGHT thing, but because they're in it together and they'll see it through.

Maybe because these weird little rough-and-tumble Peter Pans of the High Street band together in such a tight fellowship. Growing up in suburban Canada, there was little opportunity for the sort of intense bonding the Borribles go through. My friends and I weren't in mortal peril, we weren't taking a stand against the world, we weren't faced with implacable enemies who would destroy us and our entire culture if we didn't stick together. But we kind of wished we were.

And maybe just because it's so very very good. And has dialogue like, "That's sorted you out, weasel-chops."

But maybe because in the end, de Larrabeiti resists providing any easy answers. The Borribles implicates its heros in many crimes -- theft, murder, even genocide. They hate learning and change, regard outsiders with intense xenophobia and oppose anyone who speaks of "improving things." And they are clearly not entirely wrong to do so. In de Larrabeiti's world, the only people who speak of improvement are those who see personal advantage in that improvement. The only people who rise to power are those who are willing to exploit others and undermine the very foundation of their own society.

Heros win nothing but a name, and sacrifice everything. The Borribles makes you wonder if it's worth it, while at the same time making sure you love watching it happen.