The phrase, "are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?" might have been invented for Alby Starvation. Alby, the title character in Martin Millar's 1987 debut novel Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation – being re-issued by Soft Skull Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada – worries constantly about his health, the hit man the Milk Marketing Board has set on him, the Chinese gang leader trying to find him, and which of his friends and acquaintances are after his comic collection.
While those friends of Alby's who he's still talking to — well, not really friends but some folk he sells drugs to — tend to think that it's all in his head, the reality is that the Milk Marketing Board really have set a hit man on him and a mysterious Chinese gentleman is trying to get in touch with him. So he stays huddled in his apartment, with only his hamster and his comics to keep him company, watching himself in the mirror as his reflection looks gradually sicker and sicker. His doctor won't believe that there's anything wrong with Alby – but then again he's only waiting for Alby to die so he can scoop up his complete set of Silver Surfer comics.
It was Alby's health, and that bastard doctor, that was the cause of all his trouble to begin with. Gradually wasting away when he was unable to keep food in, and certain he was dying, he went to his doctor only to be told that it was nerves. It was only his buddy Stacey's suggestion that he might have food allergies that saved his life as far as Alby is concerned; unfortunately, it also signed his death warrant with the Milk Marketing Board. You see Alby turned out to be allergic to milk and once he stopped drinking milk he got instantly better.
That would have been fine and dandy, but he had to go and tell somebody else suffering from similar ailments and she got better instantly too. Which might have been okay as well except she had a friend who was also very sick and asked Alby to talk to him, and he turned out to be a reporter for the local community newspaper and wrote a little article about being allergic to milk. That's when things began to snowball, and Alby eventually found himself the head of an anti-milk campaign that galvanized all of Britain because it turned out there were millions of people across the country allergic to milk suffering horribly.
When the sale figures for milk go south, the Milk Marketing Board turns the matter over to their dirty tricks department – modelled after the CIA – to sort it out. With no time to lose they decide the best course of action is to nip things in the bud and take out the person at the top of the anti-milk campaign – Alby. By sheer luck the first person sent out on the job is "Born Again" on the way to kill Alby, and in a fit of remorse for past killings tips him off that he's a target for assassination. You'd think that nothing could make a paranoid happier than finding out somebody is really out to get him, instead it makes Alby all the more miserable.
Now Alby isn't the only odd soul living London's Brixton district during the waning days of punk in the mid-eighties. There are the speed freaks he supplies; the archaeology professor posing as a city employee so he can dig up the street in his search for a lost crown said to be buried in Brixton; the mysterious Chinese gentleman who used to be in charge of heroin quality control in the Golden Triangle; the psychic nurse who doesn't know she's psychic; and of course the second hit man hired by the Milk Marketing Board, who turns out to be a woman named June.
With the story bouncing around like a pinball game on acid (or is it like you being on acid watching a pin ball game?), what with the plot bouncing off one character or storyline after another and back again, and with no clue as to whether some things happening in the past or the present, it's initially hard to quite follow what's going on in Alby's life. In some ways its akin to reading a cubist painting by Picasso where instead of merely seeing a single view of the subject the artist shows you all sides simultaneously in what looks like an insane jigsaw puzzle of body parts.
The past and the present appear in adjacent paragraphs offering no clue as to which is which; we see the world through the eyes of characters who are on the periphery of the story; and intermingled with all of that we have Alby's disjointed narrative of events. Yet out of this seemingly random scattered collection of information a picture gradually forms of Alby's life, the lives of those around him, and the general air of desperation to find meaning to existence that grips so many of us.
Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation is the flip side of the popular image of punk as a revitalizing movement for social change as we meet the ones who came for the party without the realization that it wasn't just about loud music, getting drunk, and doing speed so they could dance all night. Like the dregs of the hippies on heroin after the days of flower power and peace and love had passed, the characters of Alby and his friends are pathetic lost souls with no direction who wanted something for nothing and ended up going nowhere fast. Whiles there's a dark humour to Ably's neuroses, in the end it's just sort of sad and pathetic.
What saves the book from being ultimately depressing though is Millar's sense of the absurd, for the storyline itself is right out of Monty Python's school of taking an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. That Alby is not crazy and the Milk Marketing Board has really hired an assassin to kill him because he has adversely affected milk sales across Britain, is merely the tip of the very peculiar iceberg contained within the pages of the book. While it might not be to everyone's cup of tea, if you're willing to put up with the slightly bitter taste and the twist and turns of the style, Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation will never bore you and will continually surprise you, which on its own makes it worth reading.