Red or Dead, by David Peace
Reviewed by Keith Duggan
Red or Dead
Faber and Faber
Red or Dead weighs in at 720 pages: the Faber editors must have gulped in astonishment at the volume of repeated scenes and sentences. It will infuriate some readers, but as with all of Peace’s fictions on England the gathering effect has a strange and lulling power.
Red or Dead is also a disconcerting dive into the football culture of the 1970s, still distinctly postwar in its ethos and simplicity. One of several wonderful blackly comic scenes has a fuming Ian St John, dropped from the first team after a glittering career, challenging Shankly about the smaller turkey he received from the club at Christmas. (It is doubtful that Luis Suarez has ever pondered the symbolism of his courtesy turkey.) St John – correctly – took it as a sign that he was finished at the club.
As always in Peace’s world, fact and fiction blur: he includes the entire text of a long interview (you can see it on YouTube) that Shankly gave to Scottish television on the street near his house. Almost incidentally, the book is also a terrific portrait of a touchingly formal but devoted marriage, and at its heart is the vision of Shankly as the great unacknowledged socialist of English life, wedded to Clement Atlee’s vision of how things should be. (A radio interview Shankly conducted with Harold Wilson is also included in full.)
Peace set out his stall with his wonderfully strange and provocative quartet of Yorkshire novels – 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983 – which depicted police corruption and the Yorkshire Ripper in a rich, rain-soaked Gothic nightmare with nary a mention of Coronation Street. GB84, a ferocious reprise of the Yorkshire miner’s strike, has the same haunted paranoia. Peace frequently stands accused of laying the darkness on thick. And he does. But so did Emily Brontë. Maybe it has something to do with Yorkshire. Together, Peace’s books on England – he is completing the last of a Japanese trilogy that make his English fictions seem cosy – are blisteringly original and memorable.
Now Shankly is resurrected as a saviour, a moral and wholly reliable patriarch in the midst of the shadows and macabre deeds and bleak houses that populate those earlier books on northern England. Clough even makes a cameo, respectful of Shankly to the last.
This sometimes mad and sometimes beautiful book suggests that, just like his latest subject, David Peace is constructing a legacy that will live on after many others have withered.