Monster Doss House

Iain Sinclair

  • The Grass Arena by John Healy
    Faber, 194 pp, £9.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 571 15170 1

‘Suddenly a hand wrenched my neck back. Others grabbed my arms, my legs ... One of them squeezed my balls so hard. I got a pain in my guts making me dizzy.’ Brooding malign silences wind the tension to breaking point, and are punctuated by sudden eruptions of violence: it is a survivalist world, bleak and uncompromising – the world of competitive chess.

John Healy arrived there, without papers or proof of identity, a drowning man coming up for the last time. It was his only way of escaping from the slow-motion suicide of alcoholism, and he took it with manic relish. His book, The Grass Arena, is a devastating account, told directly and without subterfuge, of that journey. These painfully retrieved highlights stun the reader like blows from an invisible assailant, leaving him dizzy, and slightly high, trembling in an amphetamine stutter. The procession of images once launched seems predestined: savage childhood, petty crime, the Army, booze and vagrancy, a willed renunciation, rebirth into chess, guru-chasing and, inevitably, the in-tray of Colin MacCabe at the British Film Institute.

Now the book (or, more accurately, John Healy himself) is everywhere; the knock-on effect, the metropolitan whispers that can rush the latest hot item from the Guardian to the heavyweight Sundays and a full retrospective in the London Review of Books. An authentic report has been brought back from somewhere exotic and unknown, the pavements of this city. And as the gadarene and glitz-fed sprint of enterprise capital attempts to corral any citizens with loose change in their pockets into Fort Apache-style ex-industrial ruins, such as the Bow Quarter, so life outside, street life, with all its fevers, dirt and aliens, is reduced to a matter of local colour, window-dressing, spice to garnish the sales patter. We are acquiescing in a scenario that ensures the success of such a testimony as John Healy’s – if only because these things will soon be as scarce as shops on the Isle of Dogs. The miracle is that the book exists at all: it is what we remark on, ignoring the buoyant and quirky humour that makes the grim tale palatable.

Yet The Grass Arena has not, I feel, been altogether fortunate in its sponsors. It needs all its high-octane crack to pull free from the gravity of MacCabe’s introduction. My advice would be to skip this or read it at the finish.

MacCabe feels the need to place the text safely within the corporate body of world literature, to find something else that is just like it. He flies a few kites on sex and chess and alcohol. He expresses earnest amazement on learning that vagrants lead lives almost as complex as those of cultural commissars. Pete Townshend’s little collection of stories, released on the same label, did not require a pundit to explain how a deaf ex-addict rock musician brought back the goods from his twenty-year nightmare of fame and lunacy. A chess-playing wino? That’s another ball-game.

The story, in truth, tells itself. Healy’s methods are basically conversational – with a narrative drive that is apparent from the first sentence. He does not deserve, or solicit, MacCabe’s blustering endeavour to marry the ‘crippled Utopianisms’ of addiction and political terrorism. Nor does he demand, beyond the desirability of a strong quote for the dust-wrapper, any comparison with William Burroughs and Junkie.

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