As a Mancunian, for me one of the immediate delights of this novel by Neil Campbell is the authenticity of the detail. The topography of the city, its street names, pubs and landmarks are all chronicled faithfully, so that you can trace the physical wanderings of the protagonist as he makes his picaresque way from promising young footballer to dead-end job to something better. We first encounter him working in a warehouse, resenting the injury that cut short his career at City and wondering what to do with his life. And his existence is certainly grim, a procession of dodgy encounters with the prostitutes and crooks who live and work around the high-rise flat he lives in, interspersed with drunken pub-crawls with the blokes from work. He’s fuelled by resentment, and a sense that he could he could have been somebody or something, but quite what he doesn’t know. Campbell evokes the sordid urban milieu very adroitly, his deadpan style perfectly appropriate to convey the sense of lives wasted in the tatty underbelly of the city.
The nameless narrator tells his tale baldly, almost without emotion., working against the usual convention of first-person tales, and almost, but not quite, making the reader indifferent to his fate. The novel progresses through a seemingly endless series of short scenes, almost self-contained, in which typically the central character finds himself in some sort of conflict with a co-worker, someone on the street, or an authority figure. These vignettes tend not to be related, so there is an ever-changing cast of characters, with just a few figures, like the menacingly psychotic Riggers, present throughout. These fleeting characters seem to perhaps represent versions of what our narrator might have become: the cynical manual labourer, manipulating the system; the bitter middle-aged man trapped in an arid marriage; the alcoholic young man who antagonises everyone he meets. Occasionally, we are given an insight into childhood of our hero, with some hints at the source of his alienation, but mostly the focus is on the rootless life of this young man in the urban jungle of contemporary Manchester.
An unexpected circumstance leads to his channelling his creativity into writing, and that becomes his obsession. In the second and third parts of this shortish narrative, the hero develops a career of sorts on the fringes of the Manchester contemporary literature scene. Amusingly, he populates this arena with recognisable figures, many of them carrying their real names, though one obnoxious writer, in a nice Manchester in-joke, is given the name of an old-established textile firm. To anyone who knows Manchester, the descriptions are pitch-perfect. Here is our hero on the trendier parts of the leafy southern suburbs:
It made me laugh when I went out in places like West Didsbury and Chorlton. The men had moisturised beards and spotless retro trainers and skinny jeans. And they rode around on expensive bicycles made by Dawes, and wore horn-rimmed specs they didn’t need for seeing, and they never got drunk.
When he develops an interest in writing, our hero reads Hemingway, and there’s something of that writer’s laconic sparseness in Campbell’s prose. But Campbell is not a slavish imitator – he has his own distinctive voice, which uses a colloquial, demotic tone, quite sweary in places, that sounds grittily authentic. In addition, he isn’t afraid to use symbolism to enrich the reading experience. In particular, animals and birds often make unexpected appearances – a peregrine hovering over Albert Square, foxes running across urban wasteland, and herons on the canal and the river, all of them defying the relentless imposition of a man-made landscape. The man dreams of some kind of escape, and makes various attempts to realise it, in trips to New York and San Francisco, in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, and in the Scottish countryside.
This is a very promising first novel by a writer who shares quite a few characteristics with his protagonist. Campbell has published poetry and short stories, and an early, shorter version of this book. I look forward to reading more of his work. And the title? Well, sky hooks don’t exist, do they?
Thanks to Salt for the review copy.
Neil Campbell, Sky Hooks (Salt, 2016) ISBN: 9781784630379
Neil Campbell: Sky Hooks by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.