Monday, February 03, 2014

What I read for the NFL championship game

The National Football League' played its championship game yesterday, but I spent a good chunk of the day reading a book about another kind of football — Red or Dead, David Peace's stylistically single-minded, idiosyncratic novel about a soccer manager named Bill Shankly and his revival of the Liverpool Football Club from the early 1960s on.

I will likely have more to say later, especially about Peace's prose style, notably his repetition of words, names, and phrases. And I'll compare those repeated words, names, and phrases to themes in a piece of symphonic music, because no immediate literary parallels to Peace come to mind.

A few thoughts on Red or Dead:

1) I commented last week that:
"The only thing that turned me off a bit in the early pages was that repetition of `In the winter-time. In the night-time.' It was not clear to me why Peace did that. Perhaps it will become so later."
It has.

2) Is Red or Dead historical fiction? It does as convincing a job of capturing the spirit of a place and of a time before that author's own, yet it is in no sense the story of Bill Shankly set against the cultural upheaval soon to burst forth from Liverpool and shake the world.  The only reference through the novel's first 280 or so pages to that other Liverpudlian cultural phenomenon of the early 1960s is indirect, and all the funnier for that.

3) The repeated phrases, one of which I mentioned above, are like themes in a symphony, or like leitmotifs in an opera by Wagner. Each accompanies a repeated action on Shankly's part, coming to stand for that action. Peace so ingrains the leitmotifs in the reader's mind (or at least in mine) that the slightest variation has great effect, opens my eyes wide, lets me know that something big is happening.

4) Red or Dead is no crime novel (though Peace is the author of the four novels collectively called The Red Riding Quartet). But the one death so far in the book is infinitely more affecting than a thousand crime-novel prologues that shove the victim's agony or innocence down the reader's throat.  That Peace deals with the death so sparingly and that Shankly resumes his work routine so soon afterward makes the death all the move effective, and all the more revealing of Shankly's character.

5) Shankly was known as an obsessive coach, and the novel is full of scenes of Shankly working late, Shankly planning strategy, Shankly thinking ahead.  Yet Shankly, or Peace's version of him, is miles removed from the cliché of the American football coach so dedicated to his job that he sometimes sleeps in his office (but not so dedicated that he does not quit after just a few years to work for ESPN).  The book reads as if Peace had deliberately taken on the challenge of making something compelling and original of a figure who, in the deadening, simplifying hand of American sports journalism, would be the sum of clichés (obsessive worker, man of the people who thanks the fans, family man).

6) The humor, as in Shankly's reply to a fan who begged for tickets to an important match with the argument "But I was born in Liverpool."
"Then you should have stayed here!" replies Shankly. "You should never have moved to Birmingham."
7) The soccer. Peace gradually works discussions of soccer strategy into the book, so telling and so sparing that they held my attention, and worked as part of the novel's action, even though I'm no particular soccer fan.

OK, it's early days. I have 400 pages yet to read. But if Red or Dead were a soccer team and my reading of it a game, it would be ahead, 4-0, with four minutes still to play in the first half.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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25 Comments:

Blogger John McFetridge said...

Sounds good, Peter.

And all this talk of sports books has me reading Ken Dryden's The Game again. I'd forgotten how starkly he lays out the life of an athlete.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Reading anything instead of watching the game was a good decision. I was reading Le Carre's early novel, A Murder of Quality. It is an inferior Le Carre novel, but it was still better than the football game. Without the Steelers playing, it was for me an irrelevant game. BTW, I wonder if you or any of your many followers have rankings of the best-to-worst among the Le Carre novels.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I was thrilled on my first visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame when I saw the big statue of Dryden leaning in his stick, the way every Montreal kid in the 1970s.

You're read Peace, you like soccer and social history. There's no reason for you now to like Red or Dead.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I did not actually read Peace while the game was going in. Instead, I was sitting in a coffeehouse eating lunch and putting up a blog post.

I've read too little of Le Carre to discriminate between his best and his worst.

And I imagine some crime fiction fans in Seattle might have found the game more interesting than you did.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Adrian recommends this too, and I have looked at the beginning of it on line. It is stylistically intriguing but I don't know if I have the perseverance for it, as I am even less of a soccer fan than you are.

I don't watch football American style, but there is one thing I find rather endearing about the Super Bowl. For some reason, I always seem to find myself walking around the streets at halftime, and I know this, because, for the one and only time of the year, I find men and boys, fathers and sons, suddenly out on the streets in their numbered shirts, flinging a football around.Usually badly.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That is nice, though it's too bad it takes a big game on TV and expensive NFL-licensed jerseys to get father and son out there.

I would suggest that the stylistic challenge might be the hurdle. Peace works the football strategy in only gradually, and I'd like to think he'll have you so hooked by that time that you'd find it interesting. The section I have in mind in particular, about defenders and attackers switching roles, is written with such verve that I like to think you'd enjoy it even if you're no soccer fan. And even if you don't enjoy the passage, it's short.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't think I'd be turned off reading it, I just doubt my stamina.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I first read it in a 30-page excerpt the publisher made available at an American Library Association event in Philadelphia a week and a half ago. Adrian suggested that if I could get through those 30 pages I would probably like the book. He was right.

I can't emphasize strongly enough that one does not have to be a soccer fan to like it (or a sports-hater not to like it, I should imagine).

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Read 30 pages here, 20 there, and next thing you'll be humming a long. You can do it. Aye, you can do it. I believe you can do it. I believe in you. For Liverpool. For LI-VER-POOL!

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

It may yet happen.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oh, and actually R.T., though I have not read enough Le Carre to rank them, I have read A Murder of Quality, if I'm remembering the title right. It isn't up to his best, but I remember thinking that even in this more standard mystery, his style was rather good.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I figure at least three aspects of this novel are worth discussing: its prose style, the touching humanity of its portrait of a memorable man, and how the first contributes to the second.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter, Seana

My review in The Sydney Morning Herald here:

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/shankly-and-the-art-of-zen-writing-20131003-2uvla.html

From an obituary in the Daily Telegraph yesterday:

Such was Hateley's prowess off the ground that both Chelsea and Liverpool broke their transfer records to sign him; at ground level, however, Hateley was considerably less effective. At Liverpool he was cited as the subject of two of Bill Shankly’s (possibly apocryphal) one-liners. The first came after Hateley suffered a head injury and the physio reported that ‘‘he doesn’t know who he is’’ - to which Shankly responded: ‘‘Tell him he’s Pele.’’

The second came after the Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty (who had sold Hateley to Liverpool) defended the player’s performances with the line: ‘‘You have to admit, Bill, he was good in the air‘‘; Shankly supposedly replied: ‘‘Aye, so was Douglas Bader, and he had wooden legs.’’

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I’ll probably refrain from reading your review until I’ve finished reading the novel. I’m about 325 pages in now, so I’d say there’s a good chance I’ll make it.

Peace’s handling of Shankly’s cutting of Hateley from the Liverpool squad is just a stunning piece of work. As for Shankly’s humor, the few bits Peace includes are uniformly smile-inducing. My favorite is one you discussed, the bit that includes this, from Shankly to Ian St. John:

Shut your dirty mouth, said Bill Shankly. I’ll have no depraved talk here, son. I’ll have no perverted talk at Anfield.

HHhH made me want to visit Ss. Cyril & Methodus –in Prague. Red or Dead makes me want to visit Anfield.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, maybe I have already read your review, then.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Excellent review, and I don't think it would hurt your reading, Peter, it's more of a context.

For some reason in relation to this book, I have been remembering today an old Tom Waits piece which I got on to, I don't know how, because I am hardly a Tom Waits completest. It is called Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and features the continuous loop of a refrain who was sitting outside of some third musician's studio. The YouTube is here if anyone is interested:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMZVZ5NBkpw

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

loop of a refrain of an old tramp, that is...

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I just looked up the review and it turns out I had read it, perhaps before I read the excerpt and then got a galley of the gull novel. And yes, having read a fair chunk of the novel by now, I can say that Adrian’s review does indeed provide good context.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That loop is quite something. Quite a history to the song and the recording, too, apparently. Thanks.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I think I have it on a CD somewhere that is probably in storage. My memory is that it even goes on longer than that, though I wouldn't necessarily trust my memory on this one.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A quick YouTube search turned up clips of even greater length. It looks like it was part of an interesting musical project, too. So thanks for leading me to some interesting reading.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Great. It's been some time since I ran across it.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The bit that I listened to certainly shows potential of being haunting.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

David Peace is a master, and a really good guy as well. I've read everything he's written and while some of it is hard going, most of it is riveting and very serious. One of the few to really bend the genre, challenge the reader. However, though I bought a signed copy for my brother, I will not, as a Man Utd fan, be reading Red or Dead any time soon.

As for visiting Anfield, Peter, please, please don't...

March 06, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am surprised that a champion of the downtrodden such as yourself would admit to being a fan of Manchester United. You're a brave chap, but if you really wanted to prove yourself, you'd read Red or Dead. (I have no special dislike of Manchester United, other than the mandatory resentment at them for being the first and foremost of the big-business teams. I saw Man U play Barcelona FC on an exhibition tour of the U.S. some years ago. Ronaldinho, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Diego Forlan all put on tremendous shows.)

Anfield would no doubt have changed beyond all recognition since Bill Shankly's time. But Peace's book made such an impression that I might make the visit anyway. I'm not sure I would tell my Everton-supporting friend about it, though.

March 06, 2014  

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