Red or Dead by David Peace. Melville House Books. 736 pp. $30.00
Once upon a time, Homer traveled around Ancient Greece telling the story of the Trojan War to the aristocrats of his day. It was a story of fate, rage, heroes, and the gods; it at once codified the Greek cosmology and explained how the age of heroes had given way to the age of humans, in which Homer and everybody else lived. Befitting its origins as an oral story, The Iliad involves much repetition of plot, as well as memorable epithets that distinguish characters from one another and are repeated ad nauseam. The book’s main story covers just the final few weeks in a decade-long war, but into this Homer inscribes a complete understanding of the society that gave rise to the struggle.
David Peace’s novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer’s epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike terrain separating one social order from another. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Red or Dead is that it invokes all of this while remaining resolutely a book about football scores and tournament results.
Red or Dead tells the story of Bill Shankly, who managed the Liverpool Football Club for the fifteen years between 1959 and 1974, building it into one of the greatest teams in the world. This is a fascinating story, although it is not one that will seem readily appropriate for a novel. Books about football will even put off many a reader. For some reason, the world of athletics seldom entwines with the world of literature, exceptions like The Natural or The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. proving the rule. But Peace has written a book that so cannily and originally comprehends its subjects that it can hardly be called a book “about football.” He traces down to the prosaic aspects of greatness, that bedrock which sport shares with art, science, and the like. He also finds the language to convey the texture of determination, and that occult quantity of fate implicit in any great undertaking.
These qualities become manifest bit by bit as Peace recounts Shankly’s football seasons in great detail. This way of telling each of the football seasons is one of the book’s great innovations: almost every single game is accounted for, and Peace gives us a play-by-play of perhaps a third of the games in any given year. The effect is like an extreme fast-forward, a trip through the season built almost purely on statistics alone. The majority of a season’s games are dispatched with a simple stock-phrase or two: “In the forty-third minute, Ian St John scored. But Liverpool Football Club drew one-all with Newcastle United. One-all again.” But for more consequential games, Peace goes into greater detail. He still relies heavily on stock-phrases but they are drawn from a different set, and the narration becomes more frenetic:
On Saturday 9 March, 1968, Liverpool Football Club travelled to White Hart Lane, London. That afternoon, fifty-four thousand and five folk came, too. Fifty-four thousand and five folk to watch Tottenham Hotspur play Liverpool Football Club in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. Tottenham Hotspur were the holders of the FA Cup. Tottenham Hotspur had already beaten Manchester United in the FA Cup. Tottenham Hotspur were the favourites to win the FA Cup. But that afternoon, there was lightning on the terraces, there was thunder on the pitch. Invention versus effort, precision versus strength. In the fifty-first minute, Gilzean flicked the ball forward to Greaves. And Greaves accelerated. Like lightning. Greaves found that extra pace, Greaves found that extra space. Between Yeats and Hughes. From twelve yards out. Greaves shot. Like thunder. And Greaves scored.
Anyway who reads Red or Dead will begin to notice the repetition of certain elements in this paragraph, such as the attendance statistics, the way Peace has of neatly situating any particular game amid the rest in its season, the use of verbs like flicked and prepositions like between, the sentence fragments, the pacing and rhythms of the prose. Yet no other match does Peace characterize as “invention versus effort, precision versus strength”; nowhere else does he talk about “lightning on the terraces.” Although this book is built tremedously on common forms, there are also innumerable details within it. In this way Peace gives individual match-ups a unique character while allowing for the cumulative effects that come with the enormous amounts of repetition involved. For instance, the attendance: by this point in Red or Dead you will surely know that 54,000 people represents a sizable crowd, one befitting an important tournament game between two major powers. You may even compare that figure with Shankly’s early days as coach of Liverpool, when crowds in the mid-twenties were the norm, and reflect on the reputation that he has already begun to build. There is a pleasure in reading these statistics, watching the numbers gradually change from bad to good, seeing the undeniable effects of Shankly’s efforts in black and white on the page.
The form Peace has chosen for Red or Dead is extreme, particularly when perpetuated at a length of some 700 pages. It draws on the rhythms of the epics, and its obsessive repetition of motifs and details, its insistence on certain grammatical constructions to the exclusion of all others, recalls the work of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard. Peace constantly reuses sentence structures; he copies and pastes entire paragraphs (sometimes with minute, but important, changes in word choice); he composes pages full of short, declarative sentences, each beginning with the name of his protagonist and hero, Bill; he spells out things that are usually abbreviated; he uses capital letters and italics with gusto and precision.
In the winter-time. In the ice and in the snow. On Wednesday 10 March 1965, Leicester City came to Anfield, Liverpool. That evening, fifty-three thousand, three hundred and twenty-four folk came, too. Fifty-three thousand, three hundred and twenty-four folk to watch Liverpool Football Club play Leicester City in the Sixth Round replay of the FA Cup. For a place in the semi-final, in the semi-final of the FA Cup. The Cup that Liverpool Football Club has never won, the Cup that some folk said was cursed. Jinxed. That some folk said Liverpool Football Club would never win.
The results of these stylistic choices are profound. Some of these effects are immediately recognizable: in one of Liverpool’s very first practices under Shankly, the coach dives onto the scrimmage field and begins to play,
Game after game. Running and shouting. Calling and demanding. Receiving and passing. Until his team had beaten each of the other seven teams, beaten every one of them into the ground. And Bill Shankly stood, Bill Shankly tall. Stripped to his waist, sweat down his chest. His chest heaving, his back streaming. In the winter, in the morning. Bill Shankly standing, Bill Shankly tall—
His boot upon the ball. His arms raised,
his fists clenched. Victorious.
One could scarcely imagine a more effective demonstration of Shankly’s work ethic, his steely determination to excel. Peace need never remind us again that Shankly is a fierce competitor who loves the game of football like nothing else.
Other of Peace’s effects work in much longer trajectories, their full expression only manifest hundreds of pages in. For instance, as Liverpool becomes more of an international success, bit by bit the names of the competing football clubs become more and more exotic; we move from the Manchesters and Leeds and Nottinghams of the world to quantities like Vitória Futebol Clube of Setúbal in Portugal, Fußall-Club Bayern Müchen e.V. of West Germany, Athletic Union of Constantinople, and Fudbalski Klub Crvena Zvezda Beograd in Yugoslavia. Peace is careful to always use the clubs’ full names, for maximum foreignness, maximum bludgeoning impact. They give a sense of distance; the rare heights to which Liverpool is ascending are made clear in these strange places that Shankly’s country boys find themselves.
Peace’s prose is commonly described as “hypnotic.” It is an accurate descriptor for all of his novels, they way in which his form can draw in a mind and condition it toward its own obsessive movements. But hypnotic is perhaps most fitting for Red or Dead. Rapidly, Peace’s locutions become familiar. The words begin to slip by the accelerating eyeballs, scanning and reading hybridize as you are drawn further in, momentum builds. Images flicker by, scores fly past. The amount of information becomes dazzling, but you always know just where your are inside of the maelstrom, always feeling exhilarated, never feeling overwhelmed.
When Red or Dead is read quickly, as it all but demands you do, the effect is like that of minimalist music, where the repeating melodies become so entrancing as to make any departure from them immediately noticeable, no matter how tiny. As these out-of-place notes pile up, Peace builds a secondary structure in counterpoint to the basic texture of the prose. So when Peace describes a goal as “dangerous,” which he only does at one juncture in the book, that one word carries an intensity that leverages the novel’s whole bulk. Dangerous takes on a much greater meaning because it jars against Peace’s quicksilver loctuions.
These immense amounts of repetition also impart the quotidian nature of Shankly’s work. It’s akin to describing a writer’s life by saying, “He typed. He typed some more. He paused and pushed a few keys and then deleted and typed some more,” which is an accurate enough description of a writer’s life. So it is with Shankly: football greatness is built on countless hours of drills, years of fruitless striving as you perfect your team. The wearisome grind of any monumental undertaking is felt in such writing. It also attunes us to any slight change, any tiny indication that herein lies opportunity or novelty. Surely a sensitivity to such small disturbances in the fabric of everyday life was one of the qualities that made Shankly a rare leader. Details let him distinguish the young superstars from the mediocre talents; they alerted him to the tiny tears in his opponents’ armor that would be ripe for exploitation. Peace portrays Shankly as a man quick to anticipate opportunity and always aggressive in seizing it, yet also a leader who avoided recklessness and understood the importance of lifelong partnerships.
One of Red or Dead’s core subjects is the nature of success. Peace comprehends it as a cyclical thing, a force more akin to erosion than the piercing shriek of victory. It moves according to the long-term rhythms of planning, patience, and perseverance, it is a slow build that requires a thick foundation from which to build toward substantial accomplishments. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and what’s more it was built by those weary refugees from the losing end of a cataclysm that shook the known world and established an magnificent empire. The road to glory is a long one: there are many small triumphs along the way as you amass your strength, as well as setbacks that will test your resolve and defy your ingenuity. Watching Shankly work, it is almost like watching a blackjack player, a man who will steadily stare down his obstacles, defying the odds bit by bit, knowing that if his wits remain sharp and his resolve tireless, fate will have to turn in his favor.
Greatness in Red or Dead is indeed a matter of inches. Tiny errors in the pre-season will manifest as debilitating injuries in the dead of winter as the leading clubs muck around for dominance. Just one ill-suited player, or an overlooked match-up in a crucial game, can be the difference that tilts victory into defeat. The winning coach will be the man who masters as many of these variables as possible, stacking the odds and praying for luck a crucial moment. This is the form truth takes in Peace’s world, an instinct for anticipating those invisible details. This preternatural capacity for precision is the one star that will guide the coach who will claim greatness.
Few books about sports make it so comprehensible as a mass phenomenon. Anfield’s fabled Spion Kop, bearer of the most ardent of the ardent fans, is portrayed by Peace as something akin to a group mind, a chorus that breaks out into song at opportune moments, that leads cheers of “WE’RE GOING TO WIN THE CUP” when they sense the tide of victory turning in their favor, an almost infantile intelligence that mourns and hisses when the gods of fate look askance and is delirious with pleasure when blessed triumph is at hand. Shankly, who is the son of miners, a socialist, a man of the people, forms an unbreakable confluence of souls with them, holding their loyalty as one of his dearest possessions, feeling it his duty to give this dutiful group the victories that are its right. In this pact of loyalties Peace reveals the importance of place and geography in modern sports, for these fanatics are Liverpool lifers, as is the man who guides their team. Liverpool goes years without losing at its beloved Anfield, long stretches in which it nary allows a goal, and in these achievements the measure is taken of Shankly’s oft-repeated declaration that Liverpool Football Club has the best supporters in the world.
Throughout his career as a novelist, David Peace has developed a reputation as a chronicler of the UK’s shadow history, a sort of DeLillo-like figure who trades science fiction and postmodern plasticity for darkest noir, the working man’s struggle, and Artaud’s occult. (If the two men share anything, it is paranoia of the state run amok.) He premiered in 1999 with Nineteen Seventy-Four, the first volume of what would become the Red Riding Quartet, which concluded in 2002 with Nineteen Eighty-Three. These books are loosely set around the so-called Yorkshire Ripper murders, which occurred between 1975 and 1980, but they more closely fixate on Peace’s skewed, accelerated world, where corruption is endemic to all sectors of society and where the authorities act as a private task force for the wealthy and the powerful, excelling in framing the innocent, fixing leaks, and furthering the wishes of the topmost percentile. They center around that period when English socialism was being exterminated by the tide of neoliberalism best embodied by Margaret Thatcher, and although they go light on politics per se, Peace uses period detail to construct an image of a society of extremes in which the avaricious boldly, and nakedly, take from the populace. These books also established Peace’s obsessive cadences, his pages of paragraphs composed of just one flinty little sentence each, his deadly use of understatement.
After the Quartet Peace published GB84, in which he turned his attention to the 1984 confrontation between Thatcher and the miners’ union, credited as point of no return in the advance of neoliberalism. He followed that with the first two books of what he has labeled his “Tokyo Trilogy,” dealing with the American occupation of Japan in the years following the Second World War. These books continue Peace’s core themes on Japanese soil, and they are noteworthy for broadened his technique: in these Peace experiments with splicing together separate narratives and points of view (Occupied City, the second book in the Tokyo Trilogy, includes no less than thirteen different narrators). These are frantic books, dealing with implacable cruelty, unanswerable grief, and the relentless tide of pain, struggle, strife that characterizes Peace’s fictional worlds. One does not read them to learn about a certain episode in history, and nor for the author’s evocation of a certain time and place—it is hard to say what exactly one reads a David Peace novel for, other than for a bracing encounter with the bizarre spectacle of the demented minds that he writes with a true originality, his ability to conjure the darkest black from his chosen tools: a sparse vocabulary, enormous amounts of repetition, and liberal use of capitals and italics. There is an unquestionable pleasure to seeing Peace’s ingenuity with such a minimal toolset, the way he can create a sudden sense of gravity with just one misplaced word, or the way he builds the paranoid logic of a frayed society out of abrupt little sentences laddering down the page.
The majority of Peace’s career makes outliers of his two football novels, The Damned Utd and Red or Dead, both about men considered to be sport geniuses. The former, which is told via the stream of conscious perspective of an alcoholic struggling to gain control of the football team he has inherited, has some clear resonances with Peace’s other work. But Red or Dead, which is mostly told in the third-person, and which narrates the life of a man whose private habits are as sober, clean, and upright as could be hoped for, is a definite departure. Its themes are purity of purpose, the ennobling potential of sport and physical exertion, the path toward greatness and the pinnacle of accomplishment. It is also a celebration of a man Peace holds as a personal hero. A seasoned reader of his novels darts through Red or Dead, always ready for the story to turn toward the occult, dementia, defilement, agony, aberration. But it never happens.
Which is not to say that Red or Dead completely fails to fit in with the Yorkshire author’s other books. Aesthetically, it is quite obviously akin to its fellows. And Red or Dead’s narrative comes into its own in Peace’s beloved 1970s, always a fetishized time of transition and extremes. Here Peace makes palpable the sense of transition that the game of football is under during that era, occasionally mentioning the greater societal changes afoot. As Peace tells it, that transition takes on certain overtones: the excessive salaries that just a decade ago would have made any player blush; the rise of hooliganism; the backdrop of a British society slowly coming apart amid strikes and power failures; the arrival of Thatcherism and the decline of Labor (indeed, the mention of the Iron Lady’s election stands out for being one of a very few non-football-related details found in Red or Dead).
But for all the things that make Red or Dead recognizably part of Peace’s greater project, the fact remains that here the author is working in an inspiring, major key. The only move the book makes toward Peace’s typical atmosphere of dread and malevolence comes in its final section, when Shankly, suddenly and surprisingly retired at the height of his powers, must divert his eyes from the hole left by the loss of his life’s vocation and reconcile with decline, anonymity, and death. This is a very different sort of darkness than we are used to encountering in a Peace novel; rather than a particular sort of horror born from a uniquely terrible circumstance, these are the same maladies of old age that await us all.
But Bill Shankly is not just any old man. He retires to host an interview show where his first guest is the Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Their conversation, which Peace reproduces at length, is one of the book’s finest scenes. When the retired Shankly chooses to watch a game from the Kop, a circle of humanity immediately opens up around him, his presence in the fans’ nest immediately outranking whatever is happening on the field. He writes a book about his life, which becomes a best-seller.
No, the fact is that Shankly’s old-age is different from an average individual’s: it is a man coming to terms with the loss of much more than a vocation—the loss of a mythical status, immense power, almost unparalleled capacities in his chosen profession. In the days after his retirement takes effect, Red or Dead feels like it has run aground at a foreign continent it was never meant to reach. For over 500 pages all we have known are practice sessions, games, trades, drills, standings, goals, saves—in other words, work, the obsessive labor of a life’s tireless pursuit. And then in a day it is undone. What follows feels a little like the break-up of a marriage, the rudderless Shankly cast out from the only life he has ever known, and cast out by his own hand when he might have stayed as long as he chose.
It is an appropriate ending, for it drags Shankly back down to where he started, out of the realm of mythic hero and back to the existence of a normal human being. Red or Dead is perhaps more than anything a character portrait of this man, not in the sense of that normalized by the contrivances of realist fiction but more akin to what Plutarch meant when he said he wanted to show the man through the deeds. Peace gives us an image of Shankly almost wholly through his doings, and, occasionally, through his words. It makes for an inspiring, memorable book.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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