Rites of Passage
- The Elephant by Richard Rayner
Cape, 276 pp, £13.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 224 03005 1
- The Misfortunes of Nigel by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Peter Owen, 176 pp, £12.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 7206 0830 9
- Famous for the creatures by Andrew Motion
Viking, 248 pp, £14.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 670 82286 8
- Double Lives by Stephen Wall
Bloomsbury, 154 pp, £13.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0910 7
Richard Rayner's new novel, his second, opens with a nervous exhibition of rhetorical trills and twitches, buttonholing the reader like a stand-up comic on his first night:
My name is Headingley Hamer.
Absurd, I admit, but this statement is true, and it’s not that I don’t want to tell this story, nor that l feel impelled to do so and am trying to stop myself, just that I’m having trouble getting going. Bloody British stories – never start first time. I’ll try again, and this tune it’ll be the whole truth. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that this turns out to be a style Rayner rather likes, busking and bantering his way through a non-stop routine of digressions, interposals, asides: here is a narrator constantly at your elbow, so it would help if you could get to like him. He is the aforementioned Headingley Hamer, and his story is one of a Yorkshire boyhood spent on the edges of Bradford’s tenebrous underworld. At its centre is his father, Jack, one-time RAF ace, part-time undertaker and full-time profligate, a man with one eye on the main chance and the other on any woman who isn’t his wife. His major obsession is cricket, which explains his son’s unfortunate name (Headingley is Yorkshire cricket’s HQ) and his spectacular coup of transporting a pavilion, plank by plank, from Scarborough to Bradford.
The Elephant explores the vexed relationship between Jack and Headingley, whose first memory is of his father popping out for a pint of milk and returning three weeks later with two pints, ‘just to be on the safe side’. Headingley plays wide-eyed stooge to the egregious parent as he tangles with provincial gangsters, rivalrous undertakers and runaround women. The latter he judges on their aptitude for ‘going to see the elephant’, a phrase which Headingley elucidates at the close of play as ‘the fear, the excitement, the strangeness, and even the charm of battle’, but for the purposes of this novel means getting laid. ‘That’s it, old fellow, cork them all,’ is the father’s deathbed advice to his son. This offhand machismo would be less worrying were it not for Rayner’s apparent collusion with Hamer pére and fils. He does not put himself at a safely ironic distance from their locker-room bragging, which includes a particularly scabrous litany filched from Berkoff’s East. That, together with ill-disguised references to a Yorkshire ripper known as ‘Mr Hyde’, is something of a points-loser.
Jounced along by the narrator’s lapel-grabbing style, the book seems to carry a tremendous kinetic charge, cutting quickly from scene to scene as it pursues the rakes’ progress. An orgy, an attempted parricide, a cameo appearance by the Devil all flash past – it almost qualifies as a romp. Yet there is hardly any pressure of theme beneath the bustle. Its energy is actually quite empty, an impression reinforced by the lazy time-shifts, absence of plot, unconnected blocks of narrative and inexplicable abandonment of characters (I’d forgotten by the end that Headingley had a wife and son).