Look what just arrived in the mail! For someone who hasn't actually read his books, I certainly have had a thing for David Peace the last year or two. I think it started with hearing about this book, but suddenly I was seeing his name everywhere and he sounded like one of the most interesting writers going, from his historical thrillers set in Tokyo (Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City) to his Red Riding Quartet (1974, 1977, 1980, 1983--oh good lord how I love a book titled with a number, and how I especially love a book titled with a year!) to GB84 (another swoony title), and of course to the deliriously attractive item to the right. And then there's the British TV trilogization of the Red Riding books, which none other than David Thomson called "better than The Godfather." (There's also a movie version of The Damned United, which is damned from the get-go for me because it spells out "United"--see below. Also, it stars Michael Sheen, who seems to be on an odd mission to play every contemporary British figure, mostly Tony Blair--like Zelig, but with Woody Allen playing all the other roles.)
"Peace" has become the first place I look in the fiction shelves in a bookstore, and despite all those appealing titles, the thing I am really looking for is The Damned Utd, more particularly this edition of The Damned Utd. Here's my problem: not having read The Damned Utd is causing a substantial logjam in my cultural consumption. I'm fairly desperate to watch the Red Riding TV trilogy, but first I want to read the Red Riding books (and I have 1974 sitting on my shelf, beckoning me). But I really can't read those books until I read The Damned Utd, because it is more or less the most appealing book I can imagine, in large part because it is wrapped by the Greatest Book Cover of All Time.
Really? The Greatest? Oh, let me count the ways:
- The title. The sort-of internal rhyme of "Damned" and "United," the incongruity of a football club being cursed by God (or his representatives), and, absolutely, the abbreviation "Utd," which just further compresses and mystifies the already compressed and mystifying poetry of it.
- The blacked-out eyes. Why are they blacked out? These are famous men, right? What did they do wrong? Or are they innocents given a fig leaf of anonymity as an apologetic gesture for being dragged into this terrible drama? I don't know! It's, at least, a perfect visual metaphor for the liberties taken with real people by historical fiction, but somehow it evokes so much more. (Or is it just a reference to this AC/DC album cover?)
- The gentlemen themselves. The brutal, grim players in their period warmups and working-class hairdos, bearing no resemblance to the pretty-boy millionaire footballers of our day, led by a man whose dapper style sets himself in a class apart and almost out of time.
- The review blurbs. A humdrum cover element, no doubt, but how can a quote like this, from a source as venerable as The Times, fail to whet the appetite: "Probably the best novel ever written about sport"?
- The fascination of another culture's pop culture. The other review quote, from the Observer, reads "The book that brought the legend back to life." To which my own reaction is, "What legend?" No doubt for a UK reader, especially of my own age or thereabouts, just dropping the names "Leeds United" (the Utd in question) and "Brian Clough" (the fellow in the suit, I assume) evokes the same sort of swarm of associations that saying "New York Yankees" and "Billy Martin" does for me. Would I be equally fascinated by a novel called The Damned Yanks, with Martin, Graig Nettles, Roy White, and Reggie Jackson walking across the cover with blacked-out eyes? Ah, hell, I'd probably buy that book too. Nevertheless, as someone who has burned out a little on the big American sports and has turned to soccer for the freshness (to me) of its endlessly complicated and passionate parallel history, I love the idea of reading about a legend I didn't even know was a legend.
So why, after all this, did I not have a copy of my own of The Damned Utd until today? Well, it's pretty hard to find in the States--it has yet to be picked up by a U.S. publisher, I believe. I could have ordered a copy on Amazon via a third-party seller, but I don't know, I wanted an absolutely new edition of the Greatest Cover Ever. Or I could have ordered from Amazon.co.uk, but maybe I'm just lazy or cheap or still don't actually believe you can get things from another continent, or maybe I just preferred the anticipation to the actual thing. But when I stopped by the Amazon page the other day and saw a single copy of the UK paperback listed as being in stock, somewhere in Amazon's U.S. warehouses, destiny was calling to me, and I could no longer resist. (Now that my copy has been shipped to me, the listing says "Temporarily Out of Stock"--I'm not sure how that one copy found its way into the inventory, but I'm glad it did.)
And now, how can the actual book possibly live up to all that build-up? I can't imagine it can, but rather than have it sit around making my mouth water, as I often do, I'm going to read this one right away, as soon as I finish Tess. I'll report back.