Anthem of the Everyman: A Review of Neil Campbell’s Sky Hooks
Ronnie McCluskey reviews Neil Campbell’s debut novel “Sky Hooks”.
Though Mancunian Neil Campbell has been writing fiction for a while – his debut story collection Broken Doll turned ten this year – Sky Hooks, released last October, is his first (and to date only) novel.
Clocking in at 162 pages, it’s hardly a tome – but there’s plenty here to indicate Campbell is as natural a novelist as he is a story writer. Not in the sense that he constructs elaborate story arcs and meticulously assembles plot lines – there’s not much here by way of plot. What Campbell is able to do, however, is take the reader into the mind of his principal character, a flawed everyman who, having had a promising football career cut short by injury, finds himself in the crosshairs of Real Life. This is Real Life as lived by many millions throughout the country: lousy dead-end job, precious few prospects, an existence circumscribed by the twin threats of chronic disappointment and casual violence. Our unnamed protagonist finds salvation at the bottom of a glass – the novel is a kind of extended pub crawl – but also in the beauty of the everyday, as he saves up money he earns counting couplings and sky hooks in a warehouse to bugger off to far-flung locales: New York, San Fransisco, Arran.
Told in the first person, Sky Hooks initially follows our guy’s movements from his high-rise flat off Mancunian Way to the warehouse, where he banters and brawls with his colleagues. Anyone who’s ever worked in a warehouse – or in any manual labour job for that matter – will find these passages authentic and familiar; that grim feeling of punching a clock and setting about a litany of unglamorous tasks is well captured.
From high-rise to warehouse
The unnamed protagonist mostly keeps his head down, silently cursing his circumstances while willing the shift to end and reminiscing about the time he bagged four goals for Tameside Boys as a hotshot young striker. His past feats shine with heroic luminosity on the page and in his mind, contrasting sharply with the cheerless backdrop of the warehouse, the sound of pallet trucks and forklifts bringing him crashing back to reality.
Campbell writes in a spare, unvarnished style, the better to express the cadence of his main character who, although sensitive and well-read, is neither loquacious nor sophisticated. He is, in fact, the type of male you come across in the works of Kelman and Bukowski: hard-drinking, at the mercy of his thoughts and feelings, stricken by a form of paralysing ennui as he sees each day out with pained forbearance. And on to the next, and on to the next.
Memories besiege him frequently, as if his mind were finding a glimmer of light in the darkness, an aperture through which optimism – or the memory of it – could sieve through. He recounts a seaside family holiday from the ’70s, a vivid recollection that evokes as clear a picture of a sun-kissed British beach of yore as you’ll find:
‘The men with the donkeys came and you could hear the donkeys’ bells jangle as they took toddlers up and down the beach. Beach balls bounced around and floated in the sea breeze above the sands. You could smell sea salt and salt and vinegar. There was the coconut smell of sun cream, and candy floss and ice cream, both the old vanilla kind and the Mr Whippy kind, and cigarette smoke and wet sand and chlorine through the air vents of the Sandcastle.’
A hard-luck hero
And then, to escape the endless grind of the warehouse, there are the aforementioned impulsively-booked holidays (‘I saw an offer on cheap flights to New York, and because I was looking for adventure and didn’t fancy going back to school yet, I spent my money on that instead’) where the young man learns that days exploring – not counting couplings – are what constitute a life well-lived. He alights in New York, cramming as much sightseeing as possible into a few days and bussing to New Jersey to reconnoitre ‘the bars that Springsteen played in as a young man’ , and later visits San Fransisco, tearfully describing the unbridled joy of watching the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise. These passages are profuse in their descriptiveness, peppered with place names that underscore their exoticism. They’re also powerful and poignant, as expressive of the cities’ geography as the geography of the heart, lusting after a sense of deeper meaning.
It’s not all doom and gloom; Campbell’s writing is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and I grew fond of his hard-luck hero, who kicks against life and drinks himself out of constitution while rambling here and there. The writer’s dialogue is also as convincing as anyone working in Britain today. The conversations are not erudite or enlightened but they are, make no mistake, real: authentically angry and amused, by turns puerile and political. The Tories come in for some stick, as you’d expect, though there’s not much by way of tub-thumping. It comes back to realness, for who but Owen Jones spends all their time eviscerating the Tories?
Of course, the ex-Man City starlet is entitled to rail against Tezza May’s party. After all, it is their ideological economic model which has anaesthetised hope for many of the character’s generation. Sky Hooks reflects the reality of dreadful living standards and ubiquitous financial insecurity, with optimism mostly extinguished. Perhaps that’s why there are whole sections where the character does a bunk, searching inwardly and outwardly for understanding beyond his own experience. In one memorable scene in the warehouse, he extracts pleasure from his workday by volleying a makeshift ball repeatedly off the shutters:
‘Resting on a pile of pipes there was the football we’d made from bubble wrap and gaffa tape… I started kicking it into the massive goals of the shutter doors, practising the technique I’d been taught at City, keeping my knee over the ball as I struck it, but then I just forgot all that and pretended to be Sergio Agüero and David Silva, and just kicked the ball naturally like I’d always done as a kid. I smashed the bubble wrap ball into the shutters where it crashed, and the crash echoed around the silent caverns of the warehouse.’
Campbell’s prose is empathetic if not emphatic, pared-down but poetic, particularly when describing the natural landscape. There’s a graceful lyricism and articulacy in chronicles of the everyday, as when describing, for example, occasions when the protagonist watches drunkards sway homeward from the eyrie of his flat window: ‘So many times I’d seen drunken men wobbling home, falling off pavements, stumbling in puddles, righting themselves, travelling by drunken radar and cursing at the streetlights. And these were men I’d seen with suits and briefcases on weekday mornings. I watched the billboards turn over while nobody was watching, the traffic lights changing when there were no cars, the green man leading nothing across the road except an occasional fox that had torn apart rubbish bags and littered the flats around the lobby.’
After leaving the warehouse job, the man retakes his A-levels and wins a place at Manchester Metropolitan University. He also lands a job in a bookshop and soon finds himself peeved by the haughty manner of the staff and customers: ‘The big difference between the people in the warehouse and the people in the bookshop and the university was that in the warehouse they just said what they meant.’
Like Campbell, the character eventually decides to become a writer, jotting down poems and stories in a notepad purchased – in common with the airfares – on a complete whim. In another novel, by another writer, this might well be the launchpad for a flight of fancy, a six-figure publishing deal or a measure of celebrity. But Campbell’s prose is deeply rooted in reality, and it’s a harsh fucker as we know. There’s nonetheless humour in the fledgling writer’s accounts: ‘My poems and stories reached into the hundreds and I began sending them off to little magazines. It was months before I got any replies. I preferred the brief ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ones. The ones where the editors gave specific reasons for not choosing them just wound me up, and I tossed those into the bin without reading the rest of what they said…
‘The editors who accepted my poems were angels and when they wrote back I kissed their words. I strode down the street as a published writer. I had no money and I looked like a scally, with my beard re-grown and my tattered walking jacket and my walking shoes caked in crap. To the people in work I was just a part-time shelver who’d twatted a colleague. What did they know? Those mugs worked all their lives in jobs they hated just so they could travel to work in a shiny car and upgrade to the latest smartphones. I was a flâneur, for shit’s sake.’
Funny, sad and jarringly true to life, Sky Hooks is a worthy addition to the muscular canon of working-class literature. I urge you to read it.