Dandy in the Underworld by Sebastian Horsley

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Dandy in the Underworld

Author: Sebastian Horsley

Type of Book: Memoir

Why I Consider(ed) This Book Odd: The cover dragged me in – what appeared to be a cute preppy boy standing in front of cubbies with human skulls in them. One of the blurbs on the back was from punk guru Legs McNeil and Horsley himself said, “I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.” One of the front page reviews said Horsley had crucified himself as an act of performance art. So it seemed like an odd memoir up my alley – punk, self-referentially amusing, full of drugs and weirdness. At the end, this book was not so much odd to me as so annoying I wanted to vomit and find Horsley and make him eat it, but it started as an odd book and this is where I am reviewing it.

Availability: Published by a Harpers Collins imprint in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: At first, I loved this book. Sebastian Horsley, the heir to a large fortune, had a miserable childhood and was able not to be a huge crying baby over it. The first 50 pages or so were so interesting to me, to the point of being enthralled. Horsley is clever, and he is not fooling himself by thinking he has much in the way of substance, but he is, at least, entertaining. He fills his prose with one-liners that the average pundit would lick dog balls to come up with off the cuff. Take, for example, this snippet:

After a while I grew bored so I started taking potshots at members of my own family while they played croquet. I’m sure I would have remembered if I had hit any of them but in love it is always the gesture that is important. In this my aim is true.

Initially, I thought, “How awesome is he? To admit shooting family members with an air rifle, right after he admits to arson as a child. And he knows what a shallow bastard he is. He is all gesture and no feeling. How refreshing to read the witty words of someone so self-involved yet so self-evolved.”

He similarly thrilled me with his clever unsentimentality when he discusses his parents’ divorce:

When a man steals your wife, there is no better revenge than to let him keep her. There was no discussion with Mother and no discussion with the children. He simply hobbled out of our lives. I barely saw him again.

It was 1973 and I was eleven. It was time for the children to leave home. This was England. The dogs were kept at home and the children sent off to high-class kennels to be trained.

And more of the same, discussing his mother’s nervous breakdown:

The feelings of passive suffering which I had inherited through Mother had cursed me with the gift of deep compassion for others. I have always found this repulsive. The problem with compassion is that it is not photogenic… Mother was eventually thrown out of the loony bin for depressing the other patients. She came home to depress her family instead.

And it goes on, almost every paragraph with at least one bit of Oscar Wilde-sort of pithy humor. These bon mots, coming from a man who is a self-confessed dandy, who values looks and his suits over any sort of depth or emotional honesty, initially are thrilling. You think Horsley is clever. You love his irreverence. You wish you knew him, even though you know he would hate you for your big pores and possession of denim.

I considered him a cross of Oscar Wilde and Sid Vicious with a bit of a Texas beauty queen thrown in for make-up skills. Then, without warning, he begins to wear thin. Very thin. The wit is excessive, the humorous pronouncements tiresome, the irreverence a substitute for innate humanity.

I was reminded of Buddy Cole, a fabulously gay character played by Scott Thompson on the old comedy sketch show The Kids in the Hall. Buddy plays the parlor game about what album, what book and what person would you want on a desert island. He selects a Johnny Mathis and Denice Williams album, the book All About Rhoda and Oscar Wilde.

Initially, Buddy and Oscar hit it off well, but within minutes, the endless pronouncements of wit, the smugness and the lack of substance tests Buddy to the point that he runs Oscar off.

This memoir is that comedy sketch. In fact, watch the comedy sketch and save yourself the time of reading this book.

He becomes fast friends and lovers with violent thug Jimmy Boyle, shares his wife with Jimmy without realizing it. He divorces his wife. He dresses well. He flaunts his wealth until people throw garbage at him in his car, and he insists he wants it that way, and given what a poseur schmuck he is, that may well be the case.

He gets a drug habit. He gets a few girlfriends. He gets a few boyfriends. He dresses well some more. He detoxes. He gets another drug habit. He detests fat and unfashionable people. He makes predictable and unfunny misogynistic comments (if you’re gonna be an asshole, be original – women smell like tuna, lol, is too low even for the stupidest woman-hater). He becomes a male prostitute. He has a show or two of his paintings. He pronounces love non-existent and prefers prostitutes (oh god, save us from hipsters who declare love dead and that financial transactions the only honest form of human intimacy). He has a crisis with his dad. He may have gotten disinherited but by that point my mind was wandering. He goes to South America and is literally crucified, as in he is nailed to a cross. The book ends with him saying:

I can look futility in the face and still see promise in the stars.

And this quote, I assure you, was probably not lifted from Oscar Wilde, who said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Nope. Not borrowed at all and I am a bitch to imply otherwise because at no point does Horsley ever claim to be original.

I had no knowledge of anything substantive that Sebastian Horsley had done before I read his memoir and really, does one have to accomplish anything in life to write a misery memoir? What had Mary Karr done when she wrote The Liar’s Club. Sometimes these sorts of memoirs exist merely because it is interesting reading about the horrific lives other people lead, and there is a certain shock-element to Horsley’s memoir. He is the car wreck. But instead of not wanting to look away, you want to look because you want to see what else the dandy will do for your attention. In a sense, it is less a car wreck than watching a dancing monkey. A dancing monkey with fabulous hair. And to his credit, Horsley does not claim to be much else.

Hell, I take back what I said above. Don’t save yourself the time. I say read it. Read this book. About page 75, you’ll grow tired, but dancing monkeys need money, too. And when you read it, wear jeans. And sneakers. If you are a woman, no make-up. If you are a man, squirt cheez whiz from a can straight into your mouth with every page turn. Do the cheez whiz part if you are a woman too. Then, when you are finished, take a picture of yourself naked and send it to him as a thanks for all his hard work in the field of the arts. Realize that no matter how fat, ugly, and casually dressed you may be, by sucking down that cheez whiz and photographing your dimpled ass, you have still contributed more to the art of the Western world than Horsley. And aren’t smug, unearned delusions of grandeur the best revenge? Seb would agree, I think.

12 thoughts on “Dandy in the Underworld by Sebastian Horsley

  1. So would you say it was better or worse than Frey’s Million Little Pieces?

    Also, your Kids in the Hall analogy was pretty awesome, and nicely sums up what it’s like to read the book.

    1. I think it was better, subjectively because Horsley is not trying to manipulate emotion or write a cunning tale of redemption. He’s a schmuck, he knows he’s a schmuck and he never tries to in any way convince the reader of any sort of decency on his part. As to whether or not all of Horsley’s book is true matters less to me than it probably should since I know he is not trying to subvert truth in order to make himself look better. I can stomach a lie to make him look worse. 😉

  2. Oh, would you like to marry me?
    I’ll have to buy the ring.
    ‘Cause Mark Bolen’s dead and can’t buy anything.


  3. Horsley’s self promotion succeeded in eradicating any trace of curiousity about his book. I much prefer Quentin Crisp ( The Naked Civil Servant) and Dickon Edwards ( he has a blog, noy sure if he’s published a book0.

    1. Hey, thanks for the rec’s, Condreye. I am socially aware that Quentin Crisp existed, and mainly know him as the man who said, “There was no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” I have had _The Naked Civil Servant_ on my radar but have not read it yet, for whatever reason.

      Was completely unaware of Dickon Edwards and found his blog. Looks like it’s gonna be a hoot, in a very good way.

      COOL! I love it when I am pointed to new, odd horizons! Thanks again!

  4. Sadly Sebastian Horsley has died in London of an overdose. This book is therefore his epitaph and I would say a very fine one. He was eccentric but hugely witty in the way only a mildly depressed person can be.

    Check him out on YouTube, then read the book, you will appreciate it more that way. RIP.

    1. I did a Google after reading this comment and I feel incredibly sad. I don’t exactly revise my opinion of Horsley’s status as an artist, but I don’t have to recreate him as a great writer or artist in order to claim that the world is less interesting with him gone.

      Fuck. A heroin overdose. Oh, Sebastian. I tend to agree with the assessment that it was indeed an overdose and not suicide. I too think he would never have overlooked the opportunity to leave a lollapalooza of a suicide note.

  5. I totally agree with your review. That book seemed promising but ended up sucking. That Sebastien guy was stupid. He didn’t even know what the word “dandy” meant.

    I’m really enjoying your website by the way! I’m going to try to find more of the books on your list.

    I liked the Jim Goad books. I too have been trying to find more info on Sky Ryan. If you can find a copy of the zine “Hellraiser Homemaker” she wrote some articles for it that are Hilarious.

    Have you read anything by Lisa Carver? You would love her.

    1. Two things, firstly Sebastian Horsely may have been vile, immoral and fake but he was definately not stupid. Secondly Sebastian was the definition of a modern day dandy (A man who affects extreme elegance in clothes and manners) So please if you are going to criticise the man at least have the courtesy to get your facts right and spell his name correctly!
      In my opinion it is one of the best memoirs I have read in ages. Sadly Sebastian passed a way last June and I doubt we will ever see or hear of someone quite like him again

      1. Oh, Felix, I felt sort of… bereft when I learned Sebastian had died. It was a weird feeling because his memoir soured for me, but, at the same time, I got the feeling he liked his bad press because he took nothing seriously, let alone himself.

        I think that some people question Seb’s dandyism because he was so very dark at times. Even though he spells out that he was a dandy in hell, and even though most dandies were quite dark behind the curtain, we expect those who espouse that certain Edwardian flair to be… happy? Jocular? I don’t know, but I’ve had several people remark that he was more a goth than a dandy. Perceptions vary, I suppose.

        Regardless of how I felt about this book, I think the world is a far less interesting place without him.


    2. Oh, Sebastian wasn’t stupid. He was just over-the-top to the point that such extremity led him into tiresome, ornate nihilism, as insane as that may sound. Given his excesses, I can see how his dandyism could get lost in translation.

      When you read some of the books I have discussed, I’d love to know what you thought about them. Sky Ryan freaks me out. After I posted one of the Goad discussions, I had a series of bizarre e-mails from someone who gave odd information about her and made all kinds of strange claims (and who the hell knows who sent them) and they left a weird taste in my mouth.

      I have read Carver’s Drugs are Nice. I’ve also read a few of her articles on nerve.com. Her writing largely appeals to me, and that she made out with gg allin just squares the deal where she’s concerned. 😉

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