Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Bookie’s Runner by Brendan Gisby

Review by Bill Kirton


Revisiting the past in order to learn its lessons is a familiar theme. In this book, the author's explicit about his aim. He's recreating a single bus ride to his school after the holidays, the ride which will take him to his first day in fourth year. And there, he'll have to smile and laugh and be `normal' even though his dad has just died. In the course of the ride, he recalls memories and puts them together to capture his dad's essence, to try to find out who he was and, in the process, make the same discovery about himself.

So we have a mature writer `regressing' to his early teenage self, who becomes the narrator. The bus journey is lived in the present tense, with him dredging up and mixing the memories to give the life he's lived thus far a shape, putting people in their places in the story, ascribing blame, seeing patterns. Above all, he's resurrecting his dad and at the same time forcing himself, more or less successfully, not to cry.

The Bookie's Runner is a short book but it has a compelling density that anchors it in those seemingly insignificant little details of which reality is made. Most of the memories about his dad begin with a gesture, a few words spoken, a look. Each then opens out into an episode which encapsulates one or more of the characteristics which define the man for him. The time and the setting are carefully recreated, but without artifice, and the reader's drawn into the narrative by the occasional image that's recalled then shaken off without being explained for fear that it'll make the tears start flowing. There's the sight of his dad `sliding down the living room door and dissolving into tears' or splashing in the sea wearing blue knickers or lying grey-faced in the hospital bed. They're all explained in the course of the narrative but, when they're first mentioned, they simply intrigue, tease and draw you onwards.

Then there are the strangely vituperative moments when he rails against his mother for borrowing more and more to keep up appearances. `Sure, mum, we had an immaculate house and proper school uniforms and nice clothes to wear in the chapel on Sunday but didn't you realise that we couldn't afford those things? Didn't it occur to you that we didn't really need them? Didn't it dawn on you that the clothes and the furniture and carpets were all bought on tick and would have to be paid for one day?' And there's also `the unspoken business of mum carrying on with other men'. It underlines an irony the author noted earlier when he wrote that his parents' marriage was `a match made in heaven. Theirs will be a fairy-tale marriage. They'll produce beautiful children and live happily ever after. Aye, if only...'

And yet, if this is giving the impression that this is yet another `misery memoir', that's false. Because there's life here, and laughs. OK, working class life for a couple with six kids to raise was hard, but there's a strength in their community that isn't found so easily in our more sheltered society. And, despite seeing how badly his dad was treated, how people, including his wife, took advantage of his gentleness, his trust, the man's personality is strong and he found pleasures in his life. This was the meek, gentle man who, when bullied by a Petty Officer, poured a pot of soup over him.

As the bus nears the narrator's school, the tears come at last, provoked by incidents in his dad's final days. It's the book's climax and it centres around his death and two specific events related to it which seem to sum up the man. I don't intend this to be a spoiler so one of them you'll have to read for yourself. The narrator tells us he wept `Tears devoid of bitterness. Tears of sorrow. The sorrow not for me, but for the man who had never won; the man who was destined to lose. They robbed him before he died, and they robbed him after he died.'

But then, as this `loser' is carried to the cemetery for burial, `suddenly they're there: hundreds upon hundreds of mourners, lining both sides of the road, cramming the little lane that leads up to the cemetery gates, filling the cemetery itself. It's as if the whole town has come to say goodbye to dad. It's a measure of the love that people have for him - for their Derry McKay, for a son of the Ferry.

And there's another way the father has quietly won the battle, too. The narrator's final claim is that he's learned from his father's story that `I'll be happy to forego the multitude at my graveside and my heavenly reward in order to live a better life than yours [...] I won't ever be gentle and trusting. I've learned from your errors.' And yet the narrative is threaded through with tenderness, empathy, an affective sensitivity and that tendency to tears. They do all suggest that, after all, he's his father's son."