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Four Stars: A Life. Reviewed by Joel Golby review – trivial pursuits

Four Stars: A Life. Reviewed by Joel Golby review – trivial pursuits

There’s a pervasive belief that subjects such as trainers, beer, stationery and restaurants are “universally relatable”, while things such as endometriosis, periods, birth and early years funding are “a bit niche”. Sometimes it’s implicit – in the gentle placement of a magazine in a suburban WH Smith, for example. And sometimes it is absolutely, gravel-in-the-eyes explicit – as in the opening of pubs but not labour wards during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

This oily cultural assumption, which some of the more sharp-eyed among you might have noticed tends to follow seams of gender and class, has been one of my biggest beefs in the past decade.

So it is disquieting, I’ll admit, to read a book with whole chapters dedicated to, say, the Hi-Tec squash shoe in white and dark green, the McDonald’s Chicken Big Mac, Football Manager and the Ohto Horizon needle point pen, and to find it funny. At times, brilliant. But that’s what Joel Golby has written and that’s what I thought and that’s what will, I am sure, delight, charm and move his readers. Golby’s eye for detail, scouring wit, speed-skater handling of language and mournful take on modern neuroses is just as hilarious as connoisseurs of his journalism would expect. That the subjects are petty and insignificant is the whole point; it’s while tap dancing along this footpath of trivialities that he stubs his toe on something more substantial, like, say, loneliness, masculinity or grief.

The conceit of Four Stars is a memoir presented as a series of reviews. So, for instance, the aforementioned squash shoe gets five stars; violence – by way of a late‑night encounter in Surrey Quays Tesco while looking for a specific brand of American-style mustard – gets two stars; “Being Trapped In A Toilet In Spitalfields Market And Like 16 People Watching Me Come Out Once They Finally Got The Door Down” gets zero stars. There is a recurring cast of characters; some real, some contrived. There is Gemma, Golby’s girlfriend, who becomes the subject of a very When Harry Met Sally series of counterintuitive observations, including: “I love that she mopes about the house in a huge hooded dressing gown that stinks and has coffee stains all down it”; or “I love the mad vampiric way she sleeps with her hands clasped”. There is Michael, his considerate, concerned friend. There is also a neanderthal Golby who acts as a literary mechanism for self-reproach and, towards the end of the book, joins an imagined pub conversation between Golby and his late father.

Of course, a review of a memoir is a review of a book, not a life. Whether you enjoy Four Stars will have more to do with whether you enjoy Golby’s writing than whether you have also seen “A Frankly Irresistible Offer On Müller Corners While You Were On The Way To What Is Technically A Party”. And the writing is good. But it is also true that some of the observations, experiences and anecdotes will speak very specifically to a trend-chasing, metropolitan, brand-obsessed hedonist. Is it niche to take an interest in £65 T-shirts, Staropramen, Agaric Fly incense, Westfield Stratford and almond croissants? Not necessarily. Is being relatable the hallmark of a good book? Absolutely not. Does it make me feel self-conscious that I’m giving a book called Four Stars a five-star rating? You bet.

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Source: theguardian.com