Monday, April 30, 2018

Sky Hooks by Neil Campbell

Readers familiar with Neil Campbell's sharp, short stories will find much that is familiar in "Sky Hooks", the first part of a trilogy of Manchester novels that came out in 2016, with the next instalment, "Zero Hours", launching in a fortnight at Waterstones.  The novel's real time narrator lives in Lamport Court, an actual council block just inside the Mancunian Way, and it is that urban proximity that permeates much of the story. A bildungsroman about the boy who could have made it; on the books at City - the old City, before all the Gulf money transformed this local team into a world name - before a knee injury put paid to that ambition, the narrator begins in that unusual location for contemporary fiction, on the floor of a warehouse. The warehouse provides brackets and other parts for larger companies, and our protagonist ends up in the job because the dole has tightened up, and its a ten minute walk from his flat.

Much of the first part of the novel takes place in the warehouse, and Campbell is unflinching, but wryly funny, in his description of this most mundane of settings. The "sky hooks" of the title are the imaginary parts that a newcomer to the warehouse is sent off to get on his first day, but also acts as a sort of metaphor for the life the narrator now tries to make for himself - looking up into the Mancunian sky and being surprised and delighted to see the peregrine falcons that are nesting above the town hall.

The older fellers in the warehouse have been there donkey's years, and have no ambition other than to get through the day. Campbell's character is evocative about this life - the thirst of the working man after a long day of physical labour; the going to bed at ten o'clock at night to just get the day over; and the desire to obliterate the memory of the week on a weekend. In the warehouse nobody is interested that he once was on the books at City, and throughout the novel, this one achievement is one he can't quite decide whether to let go or to share - like Harry Angstrom in Updike's "Rabbit, Run", there's a sense that the best is behind him. Unlike Rabbit, however, the opportunities for someone in 21st century without an education are massively constrained. Minimum wage jobs, a small flat that is in a tower home to drug dealers, prostitutes and alcoholics. Each walk home is the running of an urban gauntlet. Prostitutes are his neighbours, and at least one of his colleagues on the warehouse floor regularly uses them.

His own sexual experiences are equally futile - paid for sex, one night stands, or lusting after unobtainable girls, his libido fixating on large breasted women, and yet being tongue tied whenever he comes into conversation with them. It a young man's story, and the women pass through the novel as occasional characters.

For the warehouse - though it defines him to some extent - is something that he wants to get out of. First by going on two trips, to a beloved mythical America - first to New York, or, as big Springsteen fan, the grim industrial town of New Jersey; and then to San Francisco where just crossing the Golden Gate Bridge makes the trip worth while. These moments of epiphany are hard won - and going back to the warehouse makes the distance between the dream and the reality even harder to bear. Yet the narrator is not a starry eyed Jude, betrayed by the big city, or a waster content with an unexamined life. What is particularly strong about the book is its resistance to glamourising a new story arc - success is always tiny, and always tinged with failure. I recall reading a couple of episodes in some of his earlier short stories, and the episodic nature of the novel, highlights his strength as a short story writer - yet whereas a short story tends to be a single unit, here, the longer form (albeit in a short novel) provides something else. The best parts are those where there's hardly a narrative bone, in particular - and interestingly, for an urban novel - those scenes where he heads off with just a tent and a backpack, not to exotic places, but to Arran or the lake district. The contrast between nature and the urban city is a palpable one - yet he always has to come back - to work, to earn money.

His progress is a faltering one, through a job in a bookshop, to one in a University library. There are few British writers who write unfailingly well about work, in its various forms, and Campbell does this brilliantly - not just because they are experiences he has had, but because he has a good eye for picking out the absurdities. At the same time, like its author, the narrator is working on a collection of short stories. On launching it, what should have been a moment of having "made it" feels anything but. Whereas Ben Lerner's blocked writer in "10:04" finds out he has a massive advance for his new novel, (like Ben Lerner), Campbell's writer finds himself selling hardly any copies, and being ignored at his own reading.

Though other coming of age novels like "Rabbit, Run" and Trocchi's "Young Adam" come to mind, and Bukowski's working class writer is never far from the scene, there's a tightness to the editing, and a flow to the narrative which brings out the poetry in Campbell's prose. Unusually for a writer whose subject is very much "the street" and "the city" he rarely resorts to slang, and the elegance of the writing, though plain and matter-of-fact, is its real strength.

There are a couple of parts which seem to not quite gel as well as they could - some of the work scenes go on a little, but there's still much joy in the banter of it all, and there is such a cast of minor characters that it's hard to remember which ones matter. If women in the novel are merely there to be stared at, its never done gratuitously, more that the inarticulacy of the narrator around the opposite sex finds its language in how he talks about them honestly. When he does meet someone, Denise, its almost thrown away before it begins, so that one's not quite convinced by the narrator's regret that it is over.

It's interesting that this short novel - which works very much as a stand alone book - is now going to be followed up by "Zero Hours", and possibly a 3rd novel. It's narrator is more Generation Y than millennial, but acts as a lightning rod for the times. Hearing about the broken lifts, and non-existent heating within the tower block next to the Mancunian Way, it seems to presage real life calamities like 2017's Grenfell Tower disaster.

Not all short story writers make the transition to the longer form without losing what has made them strong in the former, but Campbell has succeeded, so that the episodes that form the story - like in David Mitchell's similarly episodic "Black Swan Green" - add to the whole.

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