This gentle story is a modern follow-up to those kitchen sink dramas of the 60s, angry working class northern men living in poor accommodation (or with parents), dealing with the social taboos of the day.
Those angry lads grew up to be the grumpy pensioners of this book, and their descendants are now as frustrated, albeit in a more “I can’t afford the latest trainers” way; the world is more open to them than those 60s characters.
The narrator of the book is on a creative writing course — university would be a world away for a 1960s character, let alone something called “creative writing” — and has two girlfriends, both nice. He can’t decide between them and dates them both while he decides what to do.
His nephew — whom he loves — has an illness that might be serious or might not be, and in the middle of this, the narrator goes off on a road trip with his two mates. The closest it gets to gritty realism is when they realise life on the road is not “picnics in churchyards with beautiful girls” but traffic jams and drizzle. Meanwhile, his college lecturer is having a breakdown.
All modern life is here. The narrator is off girlfriend No1 because he worries she might be about to dump him, via his own insecurity, a topic for a self-help book if ever there was one. He’s lined up No2 just in case.
His sister uses Dr Google to decide if her son is seriously ill or not, and obviously fears the worst.
Older characters offer advice that is gloriously non-PC (“.. it’s best to be with a woman who gets your sap up. You’ll stand anything if you continually want to tup them,” offers his landlord).
The narrator’s creative writing is telling; the book is an object lesson in creative writing. It’s not great writing but it’s good writing; they say all journalists have a book in them but this shows how hard it is to actually write a good one.
The dialogue is natural and believable and the story rolls along quite nicely, despite the domesticity of the plot. The road trip is an attempt to escape this domestic humdrum but fails miserably and they all return to normal life.
The plot around the two girlfriends and the plentiful internal dialogue reminded us of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar; the Press release cites Kes but this has none of the hopelessness of Kes; the main character here has already escaped his home town for uni and is going to do well.
There are some class references but these are more in passing rather than being the focus of the novel. The older man offering relationship advice complains his wife has now “chubbed up” as he puts it; the narrator is slightly mocking of the man’s attitude, but then doesn’t notice how intelligent girlfriend No2 is until the end.
Hodkinson also makes albums and has used the cover image before, on Black September’s You Can Do Anything If You Set Your Mind to It, the same shot but from a different angle. In the book he writes the image into the plot. Interesting….
Out now, published by Pomona.