Fleisch ist mein Gemüse ("Meat is my Vegetable"), the first book by Heinz Strunk*, is subtitled "A Rural Coming-of-Age — with Music". It is indeed a sort of searingly honest, frightening, often howlingly funny Bildungsroman. Strunk opens the story with his late adolescence. Not the scholarly type, he’s in his late teens, with no prospects for college, no girlfriend, and no money. He’s still living with his mother in a settlement of "dwarf-houses" in the nondescript Hamburg suburb of Harburg, the kind of place in which the opening of a new McDonald’s in the mid-1970s is still considered a high point of local history.
He lives with his single mother, who bore him as the result of a fleeting relationship, never married, and is beset by increasingly severe mental problems. Strunk’s not free of those himself: he barely lasts a month in his mandatory military service before being discharged on the unsettling grounds of "endogenous depression." Have I left anything out? Oh, right — the acne. Not just the ordinary acne vulgaris that comes and goes, but the most severe form — acne conglobata ("characterized by numerous large lesions, which are sometimes [gulp] interconnected"). It can last into the early 30s.
Not the most promising start in life. But Heinz does have one thing going for him — music. Social isolation = practice time, and by his early 20s, Heinz has learned to play several instruments, some of them well. In the American version of this story, perhaps, the precious gift of music redeems young Heinz, bringing him fabulous wealth and drawing women to him like moths to a suppurating candle. But let’s return to the German version. Heinz gets a few gigs with a dance band called Holunder, run primarily by more or less drink-addled misfits. Word spreads that Heinz can play the saxophone (or "snot-can", in gig-speak) pretty well, and is eventually approached by one of Northwest Germany’s premier live-entertainment ensembles, Tiffanys. Not "the Tiffanys," mind you — just Tiffanys. Bandleader Gundolf Beckmann, affectionately known as Gurki (roughly, "cucumber-boy") because of his tall, bent form, started Tiffanys some time ago to supplement his music-shop income. He needs new band members to replace the previous crew, whom he alienated. Also along for the ride are bandmates Norbert and Jens, a proper young civil servant, one of whose anti-vegetable sayings provides the title of the book (another is "Man is by nature not an eater of side dishes."). At his first gig, Heinz actually finds that he’s a damn fine saxophone player, and the band quickly accepts him.
Together, Tiffanys travel throughout the backwaters of northern Germany, playing until 3 or 4 in the morning in places with names like Mooreschwerde and Klein Eilstorf. They play weddings, youth festivals, company functions, and Schuetzenfesten, a peculiar German tradition in which members of neighborhood "shooting societies" get together at a big party and drink themselves into a blind stupor. In fact, just as book critics like to say cities are "characters" in a novel, you might say alcohol, in its many forms, is a character in Fleisch. Public festivals and parties in Germany invariably involve consumption of mass quantities of alcohol, often as a result of lock-step drinking rituals that generally appear weirdly joyless to outsiders.
By the time 2 o’clock rolls around at a Tiffanys gig, the guests are glassy-eyed, bathrooms are unusable (but, at 2 a.m., are needed more than ever), and unfocussed hostility — sometimes directed at the band — is in the air. Tiffanys, however, can save the day by playing "On the North Sea Coast" by Klaus and Klaus, an unspectacular piece of German prole-pop that seems to have a magical mesmerizing power wherever Tiffanys go. Strunk’s judgments on German Schlager are merciless and amusing. Germany’s fascination with John Denver’s "Country Roads" leaves Strunk cold, but the "totally depraved" songs of Roland Kaiser earn high marks. The introduction of cheap synthesizers in the late 1980s, Strunk reports, increased the quality of German dance-party bands by providing a regular beat for the first time.
After the concert comes payday, which generally involves endlessly petty dickering over the precise number of tunes played and breaks taken. And then the wild sex with groupies. Actually, no, no wild sex. Women seem rather uninterested in generally unattractive, badly-paid members of a party band who wear pink tuxedos during their gigs. Instead of orgies, Tiffanys get to enjoy, again and again, the exhausting ritual of stuffing heavy instrument cases back into whatever cheap car serves as the band’s transport. Fleisch, although rather unstructured, has supremely comical moments. Strunk’s key strength as a writer is characterization. The indefatigable and always-polite Gurki evokes a mixture of admiration and contempt from his band (the mixture’s about 10/90, respectively) as he trots out one of his tried-and-true peppy sayings, including — in English — "Swing time is good time, good time is better time!"
However, like much German humor (you could also say Central European humor) the deadpan irony stands cheek-by-jowl with bleak moments. Strunk presents himself as the butt of a series of cruel cosmic jokes. The driving force of the book comes from the fact that Strunk knows this, and spends most of the book cringing at what fate will throw his way next. Strunk’s judgments of others are often lacerating, but just when you want to protest his lack of charity, he swings the spotlight around to his own utter schlubbiness. Young Heinz indulges in frenetic onanism, drinks way too much, and develops a fateful fascination with coin-operated gambling machines. The Merkur Disc 2 — whose intricacies are described in loving detail — guzzles lots of his meager income. Precisely because Heinz shows us his vulnerabilities and shortcomings, we find ourselves hoping he will finally develop some self-respect and establish himself in life. Which he eventually does, after a fashion.
Whether as a tour d’horizon of a side of moist, clammy side German life that most of us will (thankfully) never experience or as a unsentimental but very mildly life-affirming memoir of a young man repeatedly rescued from the abyss by music, Fleisch ist mein Gemuese is a rewarding read.
* Strunk has, of course, gone on to become a German celebrity and political candidate for the political organization Die Partei, a shadowy outfit with murky ties to the German satirical monthly Titanic.