William Henry May, mapmaker and surveyor, joins England's battle against the Russians in the Crimean War, but is wounded and consigned to a filthy hospital ship, where he languishes almost unto death. Given to unaccountable rages and despair, May never imagines he will survive to be recalled to London. He has frozen into uncaring acceptance of his predicament, but recovers the will to live, the raw emotion so painful that he begins to cut himself, the self-mutilation a relief for his overburdened mental state.
When May is hired in the rebuilding project of the London sewers, a huge and expensive undertaking, his prospects have changed radically for the better. Married, with one son and a baby on the way, William is a changed man, but still tormented by nightmares, unhinged by his experiences in the war. William, nicknamed "The Sultan of the Sewers", continues to disintegrate in this dark hell, where his psyche finds peace only in cutting, his wife purposefully oblivious to her husband's suffering. This is the landscape of 1880's London, with little opportunity for advancement, men desperate to carve out a niche that will keep their families from starvation.
As gruesome and as poverty riddled as any Dickensian tale, this novel exposes the indigenous city poverty, personified by the denizens of the sewers, those who make a scant living collecting the mud-encrusted detritus of others. Vast numbers of poor people create income from the even the filthiest refuse, bought and sold for profit. The great rotting underground sewers are a metaphor for the class distinctions that leave the destitute to wallow in the most extreme conditions, soothed by cheap gin, while the Fancy, the rich, indulge in betting to alleviate their boredom, visiting the slums for sport. Even the bureaucracy is corrupt, the sewer project approved, while the funds are withheld by a bickering Parliament.
As the project progresses, the sewers become less navigable, the flushers left to ever more ingenious ways in and out. Under the threat of exposure, agents supplying bricks attempt to force May to accept substandard materials, especially Alfred England, whose bricks have been contracted by May's superior. The stress of constant threats to his family should he not agree to the illegal contracts drive May deeper into the chaos of his own mind, thoughts of death and war merging with everyday reality. Indeed, in the face of murder, who better to blame than the insane, self-mutilating William May?
With remarkable detail that requires a strong constitution, the author reveals the complex underpinnings of city management and graft. In a complex blend of murder, greed and madness, the London bureaucracy ripe for plundering by privateers, the protagonist becomes the unwitting victim of greedy villains. In this unhealthy mix, all are caught in the rude stew of city waste, men with their own personal demons and small enjoyments. Not an easy book to read, with its unflinching detail, The Great Stink is a timely reminder of the skeleton that must be maintained, a framework for civilization, where opportunity offers freedom from a life of discontent and distorted appetites. Luan Gaines/2005