The Bookie’s Runner (Second opinion)
It’s not that I doubted the reviews. People whose opinion I respect have raved about this book. It’s not that I doubted Brendan’s talent – in one week I’ve consumed his short stories and family saga and been deeply moved by both.
It’s just that I couldn’t begin to imagine what one could write about such an ordinary dad. Brendan admits it, more than once ‘he was just my dad.’ Not a hero. Not unusual in any obvious way, ‘just my dad.’ So I found it hard to imagine what could make any book on the subject as good as people have said about it. That’s why I didn’t read it sooner. I should have. I started reading. I was choked by paragraph 2. Lesson 2 learned. It’s not just what he writes about it’s how he writes. It’s brave, honest, open, poignant and compelling
By Chapter Two I already knew I had to give this my full and undivided attention – and expect to cry. And I don’t do crying. Especially not about fathers. Having long since had mine abandon me, I tend not to think that fathers can be heroes.
But this is Brendan’s story, not mine. And a fifteen year old Brendan narrates his thoughts on the longest bus journey on earth – his first day back at High School after the death of his father. Each chapter is another story in the course of his dad’s life and it works so well because the adult holds himself in the background, while offering a subtle awareness of the depths beyond the boy’s immediate grief. He shares the reflexive stance of the reader and draws our empathy not only to the boy but to the man the boy became. It is man and boy telling the story.
The 15 year old feels raw emotion and unbridled hatred for a world which has treated his dad so unfairly and everyone (including himself) who has ever wronged his dad are the target of his furious grief. The tribute to the adult is that he has channelled this into a story which is a true tribute to his father.
F.Scott Fitzgerald said ‘write because you have something to say, not because you want to say something. Gisby wants to say something – boy and man – but he also HAS something to say. Something very important about human relationships and interaction. About truth and lies and trust and failure and love.
The boy experiences hopelessness and vows never to be as gentle and soft as his dad.
‘Who can you trust?’ is his dad’s poignant question and Gisby learns that you can’t trust anyone –except your dad. And without him, you have nothing left. I empathise with that feeling.
Structurally the work is understated but very clever. One doesn’t find out the full symbolic importance of the bus journey until well into the book and it hits one as yet another sideswipe. You want to go and wring the neck of the woman who cheats them at their gardening job. You want to hunt down the Bookie who cheats them (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler) It isn’t though because the episodes themselves, well written, remembered with the rawness of real emotion, are the stepping stones towards the greatness of the story which is a picture of how ‘ordinary’ people become what they are. The hopelessness. The fierce determination not to be cheated or lied to or tramped on are vivid and real. After finishing this I have the deepest respect for Brendan Gisby. I mourn for the boy he was and the dad he lost and I hope that he got the life he deserved. He certainly deserves the utmost respect for being able to tell this story with the power of pain and vividness of emotion and yet all of that is controlled, constructed and managed with a level of reflective awareness that is little short of incredible.
The Fathers Day special review:
A short memoir by a son about his father. That description makes it seem as if it should be so ordinary, so easy, packed with feeling but not really trustworthy because it would be written in the first flush of grief, without detachment or balance because the feelings are so raw. Well, that’s what the phrase immediately conjures up to me.
This book could not be more different. Yes, it’s full of feeling: the author’s grief is still manifest and it hits the reader hard. But it’s rounded, balanced, a subtle mixture of complete involvement and balanced detachment which makes it far more moving, far more honest and convincing because it exhibits Wordsworth’s old dictum of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’.
The story of Derry Mackay starts by putting him into the context of an entire, sprawling, complicated family but then fines itself down to the central relationships between Derry, his eldest son with four sisters and a young brother, and his wife, an Irish girl from Cavan. This is a marriage with a short-lived storybook start and then a deteriorating relationship caused by his mother’s insistence on filling the house with furniture and best clothes for the children, putting them all in hock to the tallyman. So Dad is dragged down to the status of a loser. Yet he fights against it and he and his son have experiences which are not just bonding: they are somehow archetypal and capture the whole essence of Scottish working-class life – and working-class life everywhere else as well. Small victories, big disappointments and arbitrary unfairnesses. How, for example, when, to earn a bit of extra money, they go to work on the garden of a rich family and the boy is not paid but fobbed of with an unwanted tin of toffee (a sharp reminder of when I was twelve and conned by the local newsagent into doing a paper round in a village four miles away, for which he gave me a Cokeroon, a 1950s chocolate bar. Luckily I had a father who went round to sort him out). And how, as Derry lay dying, believing he has, in another futile attempt to pay for Mum’s spendthrift habits, at last got rich with an accumulator at the bookies for whom he’s long been a runner, he is cheated out of his winnings by an almost inevitable stroke of fate. I’m not Scottish but I was hit by recognition on almost every page.
Well, that says what it’s about: a wonderful memoir and an encapsulation of a childhood and a society. But it’s more than that. The style, the rhythms of the language make it very special. Throughout the book, Brenda Gisby’s prose carries us easily, deftly and convincingly. It has simplicity but is sophisticated underneath. It transmits feeling, happiness, sadness, anger and humour and insists we share them. It is flexible and eloquent. There is no faux-naif about it. This prose is not only the perfect vehicle for the book: it is a pleasure in itself. The memoir is the work of a conscious artist who writes superbly and deserves to find many readers.
I can’t speak too highly of what I’ve read here. I rate it among the best reading experiences I’ve had for some years.
Reviewed by Dennis Hamley
The Bookies Runner is available in Kindle format