A matter of life and death

Red or Dead, by David Peace, Faber, RRP£20, 736 pages

Here is David Peace, on his publisher’s website, explaining why he wrote his new novel Red or Dead: “I have written about corruption, I’ve written about crime, I’ve written about bad men and I’ve written about the demons. But now I’ve had enough of the bad men and the demons. Now I want to write about a good man. And a saint. A Red Saint. Bill Shankly was not just a great football manager. Bill Shankly was one of the greatest men who ever lived.” This fictional biography, written in that same repetitive prose for more than 700 pages, does indeed portray the legendary Liverpool manager as a saint. More’s the pity for the long-suffering reader.

Part of the problem is that Peace came to this book with an excellent pedigree. In 2003, Granta magazine named him as one of the Best Young British Novelists. Despite living in Japan from 1994 to 2009, he has written a string of historical novels set in northern England in the 1970s and 1980s: the Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002), dealing with the Yorkshire Ripper; GB84 (2004), on the miners’ strike; and The Damned Utd (2006), about the football manager Brian Clough.

Red or Dead seems intended as his magnum opus – the kind of big book a big novelist produces mid-career. It tackles a great figure, Shankly, who has been fading into myth. The Scot took over Liverpool football club in 1959, led it from the second division to English titles and, after his retirement in 1974, watched it start winning European Cups. More than that, though, Shankly honoured Liverpool’s fans. He felt that everything he and his players did was for the supporters. That emotional connection, for Peace, proves his sainthood.

Peace gives us fair warning of his style: “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition,” are the opening words of the book. He seems to have wanted to write a kind of symphony of daily life. We get training session after training session, match after match, family supper after family supper. There are repeated descriptions, some stretching over pages, of Shankly laying the breakfast table or washing dishes. Peace is trying to confer dignity, even grandeur, on a topic long considered contemptible: football, and its seasonal rhythm that is the backdrop to so many lives. He has done his homework; the bibliography runs to two pages, and he has scoured the internet besides.

That enables him to recount hundreds of forgotten matches in this peculiar repetitive style, with full detail on line-ups, attendances, goal scorers and league tables. Often the novel reads like a statistical football annual rewritten by someone studying for an MA in creative writing: “And now Liverpool Football Club were drawing two-all with Burnley Football Club. At home, at Anfield. And then Dobson glanced home a third goal for Burnley Football Club. And Liverpool were losing three-two. At home, at Anfield. But in the seventy-seventh minute ... ” Match follows match, season follows season, and it often feels like those endless biblical passages about who begat whom.

Traditionally, a novelist selects material to make telling points. But Peace seems to consider his own words and Shankly’s too sacred to cut.

Whereas the Clough character in Peace’s The Damned Utd is marvellously subtle, funny and self-destructive, Peace’s Shankly is one-dimensional – a cardboard anti-consumerist working-class hero with a perfect marriage. A man without complexities, Shankly here is flawless. The novel’s faux-simple prose is meant to echo his straightforward character.

The Shankly character isn’t even developed much. For about 500 pages, we get almost no background on his past, his views, his more complex relationships. Only in the last 200 pages (at times simply a compendium of the man’s post-retirement interviews) does he deepen. The only other characters to get much space are Shankly’s wife Ness and the British prime minister Harold Wilson, who enters proceedings late on as a Shankly soulmate.

Nor do we get much feel for Liverpool, beyond some pieties about the loyalty of its good working-class people. The city from 1959 till Shankly’s death in 1981 was a site of great change: the rise of bands such as The Beatles, of football hooliganism and, later, of mass unemployment. Peace renders these phenomena only in unrevealing asides.

Of course, there are good bits. Occasionally, Peace captures the joy of the shared enterprise that is a good football club, or the sadness of a shrinking family. When he tries to colour in a minor character – a player such as Kevin Keegan, or Ian St John – it usually works. But pretty soon we are back inside Shankly’s blessed head.

Why would a novelist as good as Peace want to write a book like this? In part, he seems to feel that football, so central to British popular culture, deserves the attention of a serious artist. But such reverse snobbery would be belated: football has had serious artistic attention since 1992, when Nick Hornby published his fan’s memoir Fever Pitch. Peace also seems to have wanted to write about a man growing old, exiting his prime and becoming irrelevant. But as EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel (1927): “Of course we grow old. But a great book must rest on something more than an ‘of course’.”

Peace has taken 700 pages to depict a saint. Someone should have stopped him. No first novelist could have got this book published but Peace has become too big to edit.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist

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