Crusaders is an ambitious and convincing account of political chicanery, ideological quandaries and gang violence in 1990s Newcastle. A novel of tough social realism (though not without humour), it chronicles narratives of personal disillusionment and strained friendships against a backdrop of political transformation throughout the country.
Reverend John Gore returns to his native north-east to establish a church in Hoxheath, a fictional run-down suburb of Newcastle. A County Durham man by birth, he has had a village upbringing, seminary education and a living in Dorset that have not prepared him for this urban placement. Nevertheless, the young priest feels a spiritual calling to the post, and his mission is simple: to draw a crowd and keep it. With the help of well-wishing local contacts, he fares well initially, but through naive decision-making and bad luck his congregation falters and he loses the confidence of his supporters.
The real story of Crusaders, however, is not about Anglican church service attendance on Tyneside. The novel investigates the seedy and brutal social interactions that divide and threaten to destroy the communities of Hoxheath, and the desperate attempts at urban regeneration both through religion - Gore's church - and politics. In this latter role we encounter Martin Pallister, the local MP, whose ties to industry promise new life for his impoverished constituency. Martin abandons the far-left socialism of his youth for a new Labour pragmatism that allows him to co-operate with both the Tories and big business: he is a man of compromised ideals, a theme that runs throughout the book.
Interesting, therefore, that the most compel ling character in Crusaders seems so uncompromising. Stevie Coulson, an outrageously musclebound "security consultant" (he's a bouncer and gangster), has more claim to dominance in this novel than just his bulk. Stevie was "born unto himself", escaping an abusive stepfather and forging a new persona at the local gym, injecting endless steroids and creating a shield of brawn to protect his vulnerable inner self. He pledges himself to "the discipline of iron" and sees his job on the door as a means of exerting control over Newcastle "scum". Big Stevie finds himself well suited to a life of intimidation, yet retains a moral sensibility that draws him into Gore's church project. Gore, for his part, is glad of the friendship, until he realises the menacing hold Stevie has over the community - and, by extension, its new priest.
We know from the book's afterword that Kelly considers Dostoevsky his "Master": in Stevie Coulson he comes closest to creating a Nietzschean anti-hero of his own. But, faced with promises of money and status, Stevie realises that "a man could get used to anything". His own compromise is an internal drama all the more poignant for his existential distance from the relatively sheltered Gore and Pallister.
Yet it is through these less testosterone-fuelled characters that we witness one of the great achievements of the novel, the depiction of a changing world in the north-east of England. Kelly introduces us to characters' fathers and grandfathers - miners and Labour men from a time when the party name was tied to the workers politically as well as etymologically. We see competing elements of socialism clash in meeting halls and on parades as the party of Neil Kinnock becomes that of John Smith and then Tony Blair (who makes a cameo appearance). Blair silences the factions and makes the party electable to modern voters but simultaneously tears it from its roots by splitting from the unions.
As the novel concludes, Blair is poised to win the day, but the ideological shift is couched in ambivalent terms: "If you find yourself changing your mind on things - is that cos you're a slippery sod? Or is it cos you've kept your eyes open? Seen how the world changes?" Kelly draws a neat analogy between the dissension and factionalism of the Labour Party and that of the Church; if the book is meant as a parable, its moral message must be that the only route to progress is a compromise of ideals, no matter how galling.
Kelly's narrative voice, however, refuses to compromise, attempting to steer a course between convincingly reproduced Newcastle dialect and a learned style that can contrast quite jarringly. Early chapters are laced with incongruous words such as "dyspeptic", "gravid" and "sodality", an approach perhaps attributable to beginner's nerves. The style soon relaxes into a more natural flow, but is interrupted quite arrestingly by the occasional linguistic oddity: Gore visits an estate boozer "in the sfumato of dusk"; Stevie's rough gym smells of "cheese and embrocation". Does a woman have "cow tits" or a "décolletage"? Is "tristesse" the most apt word to describe the emotions of a man who is "all for the tits and the fanny"?
These uncomfortable verbal adjacencies (which might seem less obtrusive if only Kelly would stop using so many italics) are too sustained in use to be accidental, and hint, perhaps, at a repressed potential, for the cultural regeneration that has bypassed this long-overlooked corner of England. In Crusaders, the north-east has found a new champion.