Corkscrew is a rollicking page-turner about a quick-witted womanizer named Felix Hart, whose bawdy, booze-filled escapades propel him up the ranks of the UK wine industry. The dialogue is tight and idiomatic, the characters have flesh, and the situations Felix finds himself in are unique to say the least.
There’s a chase scene with a pack of vicious fornicating ostriches; a hairy hermaphroditic powdered drug alchemist whom Felix sets aflame; a group of sadistic master sommeliers who never use spit buckets; and a death by cesspool.
Yea, Peter Stafford-Bow has quite an imagination.
The story begins with Felix in an interrogation room. He’s done something pretty bad; we don’t know what. As his interrogators press him, Felix gives them (and us) the whole story.
Getting his start in a local wine store, Felix’s career takes off when he bludgeons to death a notorious burglar who’s been terrorizing local shops. He takes a gig as a wine buyer and jets off to Bulgaria, Italy, and South Africa, where he negotiates deals, drinks a lot, and charms an endless stream of women.
I did find it a little too convenient that every wine merchant Felix encounters happens to be a good-looking girl who instantly wants to take him to bed, or exchange sex for wine perks. It does, however, give Stafford-Bow endless opportunity to deploy his considerable talent for euphemism.
In South Africa, Felix meets one of the story’s most interesting characters, Wikus van Blerk, an eccentric but much-sought-after winemaker. Wikus is an opinionated sage who has an entrenched point of view on everything, like the superiority of screw caps over cork or the blasphemy of wine filtration. “A winemaker who filters his wine is like a burglar stealing the family silver.”
Wikus’s “gun-toting African” partner Njongo delivers what is for me the most poignant moment in the novel, for its nod to geographic particularity and the shifting essence of wine. The three of them are out on safari, roasting freshly killed game and drinking bottles of Wikus’s wine. “I taste the stars,” says Njongo of a dark Shiraz, “unhidden by cloud. The African earth, caressing the vine. The promise of distant rain. The breath of the leopard.”
“That’s an African tasting note,” says Wikus, “And that’s why Njongo will inherit my estate when I’m gone!”
On more than one occasion, Corkscrew reminded me of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. It think because both novels blend absurdity and poignancy—or maybe simply because Felix, like Henderson, visits Africa.
I don’t want to give away too many of the novel’s best moments, but I will say that Corkscrew isn’t merely a series of random, disconnected happenings. Events build upon each other, as Felix gets himself into some real binds with the law and organized crime—the central dilemma concerns a large, conspicuously-low-priced shipment of Asti Spumante—and the draw for the reader is seeing how he wiggles out.
Corkscrew is a bit too crude at times for my liking. That said, there were moments when I actually laughed out loud. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for an easy read full of lasciviousness and wine (a la Sideways, I’d say), particularly those inclined toward “cheeky” British humor.