It was only eight lines into O Brother that I realised I was in the hands of a good writer. John Niven’s landline phone has rung. His partner hands it to him. ‘I take the phone from her as she watches me in the intense, quizzical way we monitor people who are about to receive Very Bad News.’ I can’t recall a writer noticing that before (I presume a few have), but we have noticed it ourselves. And the narrative masterstroke is that now the reader is looking at the page in an intense, quizzical way, for we want to know what the Very Bad News is.
The VBN is that Niven’s younger brother Gary is in a coma, following a suicide attempt. He had been going off the rails from a young age; now, near-destitute, all his utilities cut off and with no way that he can see to pay his debts, he attempts suicide – an act of self-harm with a blade. But he has a moment of clarity and dials 999, describing what has just happened, or nearly happened. The operator is sympathetic, professional: an ambulance (and a police car, because of the knife) arrive, and Gary goes off to hospital. John learns this from reading the transcripts of the call, which he has had to fight for, because what happened at the North Ayrshire hospital Gary was taken to is a tale of astonishing incompetence which the authorities are not anxious to disclose.
O Brother is an account of how Gary ended that way, but it is by no means the only story in the book. It’s also one of growing up in a working-class family in Irvine in the 1970s. The time, if not the place, will be deeply familiar to anyone born then, and there are quite a few of these memoirs about.