Was Carmen brainwashed?
- Life goes on by Alan Sillitoe
Granada, 517 pp, £8.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 246 12709 0
- Men and Angels by Mary Gordon
Cape, 239 pp, £8.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 224 02998 3
- Heavenly Deception by Maggie Brooks
Chatto, 299 pp, £8.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2864 X
- Love Always by Ann Beattie
Joseph, 247 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2609 2
Is there a law of gender among fictional narratives, according to which some types are characteristically male and others characteristically female? This question – posed by some recent critics – is answered almost too neatly by the first two novels under review. Alan Sillitoe’s Life goes on is a rampant adventure-tale of a male rogue, or rogue male, on the loose between two marriages. Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels shows a happily-married heroine struggling tenaciously, in her husband’s absence, to preserve her own integrity by defending her home and children against an intruder.
Life goes on is a sequel to A Start in Life (1970 – not to be confused with a novel of the same title by Anita Brookner). In the earlier book Michael Cullen left working-class Nottingham for the metropolis, fell into the proverbial bad company, and ended up as a convicted gold-smuggler. Now, having been abandoned by his wife after ten years of idleness in the Cambridgeshire village of Upper Mayhem, he needs very little persuasion to get back on the road. ‘If I’m not on the move, I’m not living,’ he thinks. Soon this first-person narrator endowed with Sillitoe’s fine storytelling talents is not merely on the road but on the run.
Cullen, who thinks of his novelist-father as a ‘randy old prick-head’ and ‘walking penis’, is himself a chip off the old block. Once back in London, he discovers that his father is ghosting the memoirs of Claude Moggerhanger, who used to be his – Michael’s – gold-smuggling boss and is now an eminent peer. Moggerhanger’s latest business, it transpires, is to supply the Soviet Union with consignments of high-grade heroin laundered through the British Isles but originally grown on collective farms in (you guessed it) the Soviet Union. Lord Moggerhanger is looking for a new chauffeur and courier. Protest as he may about keeping his hands clean, Cullen is the sort of permanent adolescent who (having failed to become a sailor, a pilot or an engine-driver) would do almost anything to get behind the wheel of another man’s Rolls-Royce. Naturally he cannot resist Lord Moggerhanger’s offer, and (apart from the occasional trip by sea, rail or air for variety’s sake) the heart of his narrative consists of dashes and dodges in the yellow Roller up and down the motorways which currently criss-cross pastoral England. One would have to go back to the days of John Buchan to find an English fictional hero capable of squeezing so much fun out of driving a car.
Should Cullen blow the gaff on Lord Moggerhanger’s exploits? And could the British social fabric survive their exposure? Life goes on has a plot which hinges on these and similar questions, but the thriller material sits lightly on the framework of a picaresque novel in which hitchhikers, lay-bys, motorway cafés and petrol stations take the place of the genre’s traditional quota of fellow travellers, gipsy encampments, roadside inns and changes of horses. Cullen, who likes to think of himself as a hard-boiled rogue, has a soft spot for almost any waif, stray or female under sixty who crosses his path. The waifs and strays are, as often as not, billeted on his father or dispatched to Upper Mayhem to keep the home fires burning; while errant females are bedded and discarded at the rate of approximately one every fifty pages.
No contemporary novelist has a stronger sense than Sillitoe of the wool-gathering, homespun poetry of the masculine adventurer, the free-born Englishman for whom (in one of Cullen’s striking anachronisms) this is still a ‘cosy and exciting country to live in’. Sillitoe has a nice ear for English place-names: there are high jinks at Doggerel Bank, Back Enderby, Peppercorn Cottage and Upper Mayhem, all (appropriately) dens of thieves. Local patriotism is in plentiful supply, since so many of the companions Cullen picks up are, like himself, ‘all-knowing bottom-dog Nottingham’ types, sentimental Sherwood Foresters torn between the bleak romantic thrill of setting off at dawn up the Great North Road and the domestic attractions of a spot of hearthrug pie or a strong pot of jollop.