To want is to desire, and it is also to lack. The hero of Alison Moore’s second novel, Lewis Sullivan, wants in both senses. He lives in the same small village in the English Midlands in which he grew up, and he is retired from his job as a religious education teacher in the same school at which his father taught. His wife is dead; his father Lawrence is in a nursing home. Lewis’s daughter Ruth visits him and brings dull soup, which he doesn’t like. Could Lewis – too late now, of course – have lived differently and more boldly? Could he have travelled to Australia? Could he have tried black pudding? Could he have taught chemistry?
He Wants is a book about small lives, lived in the fear of bigness, told sparely and deadpan. We’re in Prufrock territory. “He does sleep through earthquakes. There was one very recently, with a magnitude of three, right where he lives but he was unaware of it until he read about it in the paper in due course.” The brilliance in that line is the last three words. A metaphor is not only literalised: it is then banalised. If Moore is being funny, which she is, she’s being funny in the mode of Alan Bennett or Philip Larkin in dry form.
The plot (well, sort-of plot) turns on the reappearance in Lewis’s life of a bad-boy (well, sort-of bad-boy) school contemporary called Sydney (“like the capital of Australia”; “Sydney’s not the capital of Australia”). Sydney – grey-stubbled, skinny, shifty – is no sort of Heathcliff but he has come to represent a freedom that Lewis still covets; a freedom itself now framed not by the possibility of roads to be taken but by regret at those it’s too late to take.
Oddly for a book in which very little happens, I find myself wanting to avoid spoilers. There are two retirees, one in a nursing home; an elderly ex-con trying to avoid someone he owes money; and a middle-aged woman hoping to meet her pen-pal. A number of connections – thematically effective and naturalistically implausible – are made. There’s some business with soup, with dogs, and with romantic fiction (“he puts the theology book back in its place and takes down the Bliss Tempest, on whose cover there is a naked male torso, brown and hard and gleaming like the furniture in the nursing home after it’s been buffed with Mr Sheen”).
In the nursing home, “on the wall just inside the kitchen, there is a list of names and dates, days on which there will be birthday cake. Through this one and that one a pencil line has been drawn, indicating the passing not of the birthday but of the birthday girl or boy. Lawrence, who has seen this list, wonders about the use of pencil, which seems rather tentative, non-committal. Hanging from a string, there is a pencil with a rubber on the end, in case of mistakes, he supposes ... ”
There are, I think, weaknesses. The verbal patterning – variants on the phrase “he wants” so insistent page by page that they feel as if they ought to come italicised for the ease of future students – somehow comes off. But other gestures of Moore’s – the unveiling of lurid catastrophes in both Lawrence’s and Lewis’s past, for instance – feel clunky; and she only just skirts patronising her characters.
But Moore is a serious talent. There’s art here. There’s care. And the bottom line – if perhaps too strongly spelt out – is nevertheless effective both at the level of rueful comedy and emotional engagement.
In the nursing home we sometimes see things from the perspective of the carers – giving a brutalising sense of the smallness of what Lawrence has but also of what he wants and of what lack and desire mean in his situation:
“‘One of the men in the lounge is crying.’
‘That will be Lawrence,’ says the nurse, who is due a break and has just sat down.
‘I think he wants something,’ says the girl.
‘He always wants something,’ says the nurse. ‘He spends half the night calling for a glass of water when he’s already got one.’
The girl walks away again, pulling the vacuum cleaner down the corridor towards the lounge.”
And here’s Lewis visiting his second-favourite pub and being hailed by the bartender: “When Lewis has made his way across the room, Miranda says to him, ‘What do you want, love?’
Yes, he wants to say to her, yes, please.”
He Wants, by Alison Moore, Salt, RRP£8.99, 182 pages