One of the reasons there is so little good fiction about sports (or "sport," as the cover of The Damned Utd has it) is the problem of authorial manipulation. Organized sports, of course, are a giant plot factory, massive and efficient enough to rival even James Patterson, Inc. But the beauty of their plots is that (with the possible exception of a few NBA playoff series and, apparently, the tennis matches of "Crazy Dani" Koellerer) the outcomes are contingent on the events and the participants themselves, not on strings pulled from above. And so any fiction built on a sports plot has the handicap of substituting for that beauty our awareness that the outcomes have been determined by the author. Really, this is no different than the difficulty any fiction writer has in mimicking the contingencies of life in a manufactured story--perhaps it's just that the temptation of constructing dramatically cliched sports plots proves too strong for most. (For an extreme example, check out the box score compiled of the big game in that Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny starrer, Space Jam.)
And so the best sports fiction either embraces that godlike authorial role by playing up the myth-making (as in The Natural, or Jaimy Gordon's recent Lord of Misrule, or, most self-consciously, The Universal Baseball Association) or pushes the on-field action so far aside that the game results hardly matter (as in Mark Anthony Jarman's hockey picaresque, Salvage King, Ya!). As both a fiction writer and, in earlier days, a nerded-out devotee of APBA baseball (a dice-and-card recreation of big league action), I'm a little surprised that I've never heard of someone trying an option from the John Cage playbook and determining the plot of their sports novel by actually rolling dice. To be honest, as someone who has real trouble with the arbitrariness of even non-sports fiction plotting, that gambit is so appealing I might actually try it myself some time...
But of course, there's another choice: building your fiction on the already-contingent facts of real life, which adds the frisson (or the safety net) of "hey, it really happened!" to an unlikely tale like The Fighter (or, just barely, to Hoosiers). And that's the method taken by David Peace in The Damned Utd, his retelling of the outlandishly steep rise and fall of football manager Brian Clough, who led unsung Derby County to the English First Division title in '71-'72 but was pushed out two seasons later and then, disastrously, took over their bitter rivals Leeds United, which had just won the league the year before but imploded under his reign, which lasted only 44 days.
Last week I described the excessive level of anticipation that I'd stirred up for Peace, and this wonderfully packaged book in particular, a level that's almost impossible to match. One benefit of my new life is that I actually sometimes read books the same week I buy them, and in this case I made sure to. And did it live up to the hype I'd heaped on it? I can happily say it did. It's a visceral portrait that indulges in (or, I should more fairly say, challenges) some of my most cherished literary pet peeves and succeeds almost entirely. I'll happily move on to more Peace (next: 1974), with one question in particular in mind: is the style of this book driven by Peace, or by his understanding of his hero, Brian Clough?
It's become a cliche of coverage of Peace to call him the "English James Ellroy," but it's one that Peace himself has not shied from (see his interview with the Demon Dog from 2010). It's right there on the surface: the staccato sentences, the eagerness to use real names and public events as the raw material for fiction. ("Eagerness" actually seems too weak a word for the hunger Peace and Ellroy have for those real materials.) But Peace has a power of his own. Among the Ellroy traits you won't find (in this book at least): the midcentury Wolfman Jack hipster tone, the self-lacerating operatic morality, and the women (who are almost entirely absent from The Damned Utd--even Clough's oft-mentioned wife isn't to my memory given a name).
Peace pushes repetition farther than Ellroy ever does. (In fact, "Repetition. Repetition--" are the first two words of the novel.) Whether or not it's a style he holds to in other books, it's perfect for Clough, who is stuck in an obsessive maze of self-doubt and hatred, and it also evokes the necessary repetition that is required of the professional sportsman: the games piled on games, the same formulaic exhortations, the same reporters' demands. In these repetitions, he commits what in lesser hands is one of my cardinal sins, which you might call onthenoseness, calling out Clough's emotional state in the barest of emotional terms, over and over: "Tonight is vindication. Tonight is justification-- Tonight is your revenge, revenge, revenge--." But it's right for Clough, and it's right for The Damned Utd. (In both of these, the repetition and the onthenoseness, as well as Clough's self-pity, he's closer actually to James Frey than James Ellroy, though that's not high praise from me. The parallels end there.)
What balances the obsessive rat-a-tat-tat of Clough's internal monologue is the brilliant and cutting dialogue when Clough surfaces into the world, both in his often devastating exchanges with players and staff, and in his more knowingly witty presentation of himself toward the press. The tension between Clough's churning and self-consuming insides and his contact with the world, both when it responds to his fire and charm and when it spits back in his face, is what drives this propulsive story as much as the crazily dramatic events it follows.
And what role do those actual events--the contingent sporting plots Peace has borrowed--play in the story? The odd thing is that for a reader like me, who hardly knew any of the players or events beforehand, it may as well have been fiction. It's intriguing and fun, after reading about Clough and Don Revie and Billy Bremner, etc., to go track them down online and compare their stories to Peace's version. But I'm not sure the novel would have been any less effective for me if it had been set in that same milieu but with made-up characters and events. And I think the same could be said for the American parallel I imagined in my last post on Peace: the idea of a novel built around Billy Martin, the American Clough, during one of his years in the Bronx Zoo, is pretty appealing, but so would be one that takes a step back from reality and creates a stylish and intense story that feels true to the culture of '70s baseball but doesn't rely on actual names and events to do so.
But that would be very hard to pull off. I'm reminded of something the screenwriter Richard J. Lewis recently said about why so many books are adapted into movies: "A good story is a very hard thing to invent." And so perhaps what draws a writer to a real story like Clough's is less a postmodern (or post-postmodern) interest in channeling (or subverting) the power of "reality" than the recognition of what a crazily compelling story Brian Clough, the novelist of his own life, constructed in 1974, with the assistance of Don Revie and Peter Taylor and Dave Mackay and a large cast of others. In Peace's hands, that compelling story is done full justice.
P.S. One difference in reading this book as a knowledgeable football fan and an ignorant one such as myself: anyone who knew Clough's history would also know, while reading the story of his most horrible year, that, as Peace alludes to in the very last line of the book, [SPOILER!] he bounced back to even greater success soon after with another club, Nottingham Forest, which, incredibly, he took from Second Division mediocrity to the top of the First within a couple of years, just as he did with Derby, and where he stayed for nearly two decades. It's like reading a novel about, say, Nixon losing the California governor's race in '62 without knowing he'd be twice elected president within the following decade.
P.P.S. Speaking of inventing reality, the question of how much Peace made up (or falsified, depending on your perspective) in this story has been raised by Clough's family and others used as characters in the book, which is not really for me to judge, or even care too much about. But I did enjoy tracking down some clips of Cloughie himself, including this TV appearance with his rival and predecessor Don Revie just after his firing from Leeds. (Peace quotes liberally from it in one of the last scenes in the book):
And here is Clough "destroying" BBC interviewer John Matson, displaying a withering brilliance that sometimes is lost in the chaos of The Damned Utd.