The last time David Peace wrote a novel about football he got his publishers sued for libel, which may help explain why his new one avoids invention wherever it
can squeeze interest out of such stony matters of record as team sheets and attendance figures.
Red or Dead follows the legendary manager Bill Shankly from his arrival at
Liverpool — second-division stragglers in 1959 — to his death in 1981, seven years after retirement, having built a league-winning team that went on to rule Europe. Seldom does a novel, dedicated at such length to a single life, venture so scarcely into the mind of its subject; the gamble is that Peace’s biblically iterative method is strong enough to sustain but not overwhelm you.
All the novel’s effects depend on repetition. Here Peace uses a mere number to evoke match-night majesty:
On Thursday 14 April, 1966, Liverpool Football Club travelled to Parkhead, Glasgow. That night, seventy-six thousand, four hundred and forty-six folk came too. Seventy-six thousand, four hundred and forty-six folk to watch the leaders of the Scottish First Division play the leaders of the English First Division in the first leg of the semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Seventy-six thousand, four hundred and forty-six folk to watch the Celtic Football Club versus Liverpool Football Club. At Parkhead, in Glasgow. Seventy-six thousand, four hundred and forty-six folk in full voice, in full cry.
And here he portrays the aftermath of defeat chez Shankly without access to what he’s actually thinking:
In the house, in their kitchen. Bill got up from the table. Bill picked up the plates. Bill walked over to the sink. Bill put the plates in the sink. Bill walked back over to the kitchen table. Bill picked up the salt and pepper pots. Bill put them in the cupboard. Bill walked back over to the table. Bill took the cloth off the table. Bill walked over to the back door. Bill opened the back door. Bill stepped outside. Bill stood on the step. Bill shook the cloth. Bill stepped back into the kitchen. Bill closed the door. Bill folded up the tablecloth. Bill put it in the drawer. Bill walked back over to the sink. Bill turned on the taps.
Peace uses as pivot the implication that Shankly tragically misunderstood the significance of handing in his notice after a third league title in 1974 — as if the club might have waited for him to backtrack — but his pain doesn’t fire the novel the way Brian Clough’s fired The Damned United (2007). The emotional pull of that book — clearest in Clough’s relationship with his assistant Peter Taylor — finds a parallel here only in fits and starts: in flashpoints with loyal players hurt when dropped in favour of new blood; in tight-lipped exchanges between Shankly and his eventual replacement Bob Paisley; and in Shankly’s equally repressed put-the-kettle-on chats with his wife, Ness, willingly sidelined for glory.
The real drama lies in the novel’s non-negotiable style, either a near-Oulipian feat of cortex-scalding intensity or just dull as it hammers out the pattern of a life lived to the relentless rhythm of the fixture calendar. Perhaps even those readers who are unaware of the story will turn the pages less to discover what happens next than to find out if it really is all like this.
It’s amazing how much power it generates from such brutally limited means — although I shudder to think that for Peace, two novels into a horrifying trilogy about postwar Japan, the composition of these 700-plus pages probably brought a bit of light relief.