Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Wilson, Astill and Doyle.

Ballistics, by D W Wilson

Following his success as a writer of short stories, D W Wilson’s ‘Hyper Macho’ debut novel follows two male protagonists: Alan West and Archer Cole. At the behest of his grandfather Cecil, Alan journeys through the Canadian Rockies, in the grip of wildfires, searching for his father. He takes Archer Cole along with him, an 82-year-old US marine and Vietnam War veteran, who continually experiences disturbing flashbacks.

David Annand of the Telegraph offers praise for Wilson’s first novel. He remarks that “unlike the standard sub-Carver sentences that characterise most of the [Hyper Macho] genre, Wilson’s prose is rich and nuanced, and Archer is a sophisticated portrait of a man intelligent beyond his education”. However, “It’s a shame ... that Alan seems to have been unaffected by his big-city schooling and is as uncritically in thrall as the rest of them to the Hyper Macho honour code.” Annand suggests that the book would thus benefit from a “counterpoint model of masculinity”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair offers a similar criticism, remarking that the novel is perhaps too hypermasculine, to the clear detriment of its analysis of women. “The story lacks real insight into its trio of female characters” suggests Adair. “Invermere, [where most of the novel takes place] drenched in testosterone, booze, male sweat, the sounds of gunfire, the rasp of petrol engines, buzzsaws, men revving up for regular blood and bone encounters, is a male-only adventure playground”. Compared to Wilson’s short stories, Adair also believes that “too much happening, too many words”.  A similar overload is lamented in “the closing quarter of the novel” which “almost chokes itself: so much drama”.

Robert Nathan of the Guardian however is not so critical of what he calls a “lean, powerful book about quiet, emotional people”.  He offers particular praise for Wilson’s descriptive ability. He “animates a world that any small-town North American could identify in a moment”. Yet mere description is not all Wilson achieves. The novel “transcends this environment to evoke something universal: how people live through loss, and how they talk about what matters, or don't”.

The Great Tamasha, by James Astill

The critics have lavished praise on James Astill’s exploration of Indian cricket. The Great Tamasha analyses key developments in cricket’s recent history, such as the advent of the IPL, the Indian influence on cricket, and its growing domination of the sport, while also using the game as a lens to view deeper, more problematic issues in Indian society.

The Guardian’s James Burke flatters Astill’s  “engaging, perceptive and rigorous book”. The book is about much more than sport” Burke explains, and features analysis of recurrent Indian issues, such as the caste system. Particular praise is given to Astill’s first-hand research. Astill “spent a week living in both slums in Mumbai and a rural village in the dirt-poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which few writers have the time, or the desire, to do”. As a result, his “narrative is helped along by lively interviews with strong characters”. Burke concludes that “The Great Tamasha tells a fascinating story well. Anyone interested in India, or cricket, and most certainly both, will enjoy it very much”.

Mihir Bose of the Independent offers similar adulation. “Much of this story is known” remarks Bose, “but while Astill relies on previously published material, what makes his book exceptional is his first-hand reporting”. The breadth of Astill’s research receives special praise. We “meet powerful Indian politicians from Sharad Power, who aspired to be prime minister and headed international cricket, to residents of Dharavi in Mumbai, one of the biggest slums in Asia”. Like Burke, Bose is also keen to emphasise how other important issues in Indian society are tackled through the lens of cricket. India’s “corruption, crony capitalism, ... [its] thriving democracy” are all explored.

Finally, Tom Fort of the Telegraph congratulates Astill on a “clear-sighted and superbly researched” book. Yet another critic is impressed by Astill’s erudition: “Astill seems to have talked to everyone who is anyone involved in this deeply unattractive business” Fort remarks. Fort also believes that as a “cricket nut” and the “Economist’s bureau chief in Delhi, Astill was well placed to observe the birth of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and monitor its explosive growth”.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s latest novel is a sequel to The Commitments (1987). It follows middle class, middle-aged Jimmy Rabbitte who pays for a three bedroomed house and sizeable family by pursuing a career in the Irish music industry. At the start of the novel Jimmy is diagnosed with bowel cancer (hence the title), exploring both his treatment for the disease, and the Irish music industry simultaneously.

Theo Tait of the Guardian remarks that although the book is “easy to pigeon hole” as a “mid-life crisis novel”, it “has heart and humour, and is thick with Dublin detail”. Impressive too is the fact that Doyle manages to simultaneously serve “up a good-sized helping of nostalgia”, yet attack such sentiments at the same time. Tait believes that the book “provides everything that, back in the mid-1990s, a Roddy Doyle novel seemed to represent: a big, raucous but loving Northside Dublin family; perfectly pitched dialogue; well-observed male camaraderie; a lot of music; and, perhaps most of all, entertaining profanity”. He concludes that “The Guts deserves to be a popular success. Who knows, it might even penetrate a demographic group notoriously resistant to reading novels: middle‑aged men”.

The National Post’s Philip Marchand also emphasises the warmth that Doyle’s latest work contains. “The novel is rich in sentiment and episodes conveying sentiment” Marchand explains, while the book has a “comic mode” which is retained even in its darker moments. This “comic mode is heightened by the form of the narrative, which is basically a series of dialogues - often texted”. However, although this “keeps things sprightly” it “also limits the emotional tone, so that the novel begins to seem like a requiem performed entirely by brass instruments.” In all, Marchand offers a balanced appraisal of a “buoyant tale”.

“It is bright, jokey, wry and robust” explains Patricia Craig of the Independent. She a makes a point of commenting on the book’s authenticity, as Doyle “captures the authentic tones of a late 20th-century, urban working-class, pub- and housing-estate culture, all Howyeh and Wha' d'you mean? and shite and fuck”. This creates an “emphatic atmosphere” which “in a sense... takes the place of a plot”. Like the other “’Barrytown’ novels in particular” The Guts is by no means a book where you will find intricate plot making.

Again, reference is made to the book’s treatment of sentimentality. At times, Doyle’s “and his characters' exasperation with sentimental shite ('it was fuckin' everywhere') gives way to actual sentimental shite: 'the sadness, the grief, had never left. Like losing the kids, them growing up and away from him, one by one'. But such lapses are rare, amid the whole demotic, chaotic onrush of Dublin life and inimitable carry-on”, Craig explains.

Craig remarks that The Guts features much of what is typical of Roddy Doyle: social criticism, “immense skill” and an intensely Irish feel.

James Astill's "The Great Tamasha", an exploration of indian cicket, has been well received. Images: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses