After Brock is a slightly eccentric rite-of-passage novel rooted firmly in the Marches. In September 2009, we are told, an 18-year-old boy called Nat Kempsey disappeared for five days into the Berwyn mountains, on the Welsh side of the border. Paul Binding is at all times specific about time, place and names; the story has an air of veracity which carries the reader with it even when the dialogue seems forced and the coincidences improbable.
Nat, recovering from his mountain ordeal in the bedroom above his father’s kite shop in Leominster, tells his story to a more-than-averagely alert reporter from the local newspaper. It soon becomes evident that the story that really needs telling belongs to Nat’s father, Pete.
Pete grew up in Leominster in the 1970s, a grammar school boy, admiring Genesis and the Grateful Dead, at odds with his chilly, respectable parents, jealous of his admired younger brothers. The only thing that sets Pete apart from any number of mildly disaffected young men is his freakishly high IQ. He is picked to perform on High Flyers, a radio quiz show — an event of such significance that, decades later, he chooses to give his kite shop the same name. His parents, implausibly, oppose his taking part in the show; a war of attrition is waged.
As one of the chapter titles has it, ‘Enter Mephistopheles’, in the form of Sam Price, a boy of Pete’s age, handsome, charismatic and rich. Sam has been expelled from public school in mysterious circumstances. He talks in an affected drawl which he hopes will set him apart from his successful but uncultured family —’I have this damned feeling that passion’s going to be my undoing one of these days.’ Pete is entranced. Sam has drugs, he has a car; emotionally, he plays hard to get. One night, the pair set off in search of UFOs, an escapade that ends in life-changing disaster.
For a while, I was afraid that the book really was going to be about UFOs. However, in an odd and rather charming twist, an encounter with a badger (the Brock of the title) turns out to be of greater significance than the flashes and bangs over the mountains.
Binding’s plotting is at times as clumsy, and he does not always seem able to distinguish between telling detail and red herrings, but he redeems himself through his powerful depiction of late adolescence in all its glory, ennui and misery. The unexpressed eroticism of Pete and Sam’s relationship is subtly conveyed. Nat, the younger narrator, is the convincing product of a father whose life was stymied by tragedy; the restrictions and conventions of Seventies small-town life are accurately portrayed.
Above all, there is the sense of place. The mountains are a fertile breeding-ground for myth and legend. After Brock shows how natural drama infuses human behaviour with resonant meaning, and vice versa.