Great stylists are easily parodied, and therefore easily ridiculed. The textual tics of a Samuel Beckett or an Ernest Hemmingway can be quickly mocked and, some would argue, are always in danger of falling into self-mockery. (Perhaps that is why such fierce stylists are rare.) What, then, to make of David Peace, a writer so immensely formulaic in the cadences of his fiction it all but overwhelms the content? Peace’s latest novel, based on the life of Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, is over 700 pages long, and so it is difficult in even an extended extract to give a true sense of the style which remains rigidly in place throughout the book. Here is a brief example:
“On a frozen pitch, in inches of sand. In the twenty-first minute, Peter Thompson was tackled. Hard. Thompson fell, Thompson hurt. And on the frozen pitch, in the inches of sand. Thompson did not get back up. And Evans came on for Thompson. And on the frozen pitch, in the inches of sand. Liverpool football club were all fingers and thumbs. Error after error, mistake after mistake. On the frozen pitch, in the inches of sand.”
Short sentences and repetition are the key factors. Repetition that involves never referring to the main character as ‘he’ but always as ‘Bill Shankly’; repetition that means whenever ‘at home’ appears ‘at Anfield immediately follows. The text is also filled with more information (crowd attendances, teams, scores) than a football almanac. Match after match is detailed, in a style similar to the above, often with little or nothing in between. And yet I found it riveting.
Bill Shankly was the manager who changed Liverpool from Second Division mediocrities into First Division champions, won them their first F.A. Cup, and also their first European trophy. Peace’s achievement is to turn this into a piece of fiction that brilliantly conveys the relentless nature of the game in a way that I’m sure today’s manager would immediately recognise. And it’s the novel’s style which does this. Including every detail of every match demonstrates how difficult it is to win. Even though we are aware that there is a Hollywood story arc from failure to success, it does not feel the same when we are immersed in the minutiae of the matches. Even after winning the League, Shankly must immediately prepare for winning it again.
Red or Dead will be compared to Peace’s other football novel, The Damned Utd. That however was a quite different book with its focus on a much shorter time period and a more complex and conflicted character in Brain Clough. Shankly is quieter, unassuming, repeating again and again that everything he does is for Liverpool Football Club and its fans. There are numerous stories of his kindness to fans, and time and again he uses the supporters to motivate the players. The length of Red or Dead, which some might see as indulgent, is also important. Without it, it would be difficult to understand Shankly’s decision to retire when at the pinnacle of his success. It also demonstrates why he finds it impossible to leave the game behind.
The relentless flow of football is only broken by a lengthy (verbatim, I think) conversation between Shankly and Harold Wilson after Shankly retired and hosted a radio show. This is clearly important to Peace’s aims with the novel as he features both characters again in a railway carriage in the final scene. Unfortunately I found its comparisons between football and politics banal and, though both men talk as socialists, neither has anything profound to say on the topic.(And while it’s always nice for Robert Burns to get a mention, this too seemed as little glib). Perhaps Peace’s intention is simply to hark back to a different Britain, as the novel’s final line (“All change here! All change, please!”) seems to suggest.
What is certainly the case is that Peace, author of the greatest English novel about football, has provided himself with some competition.