Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Wicket in the Rec

This isn't the cover, but I needed something visual in order to silence the inner voices and sometimes I find it very difficult to leave my GIMP alone. Whilst I don't wish to imply The Wicket in the Rec is actually a Penguin Modern Classic, it's nevertheless not something to be sniffed at.
Paul Hayes The Wicket in the Rec (2011)
I'm not sure anyone in the history of publishing has ever really isolated quite what it takes to get a novel past the slush pile firewall and into fancy-pants print, although Paul Hayes has clearly given the matter some thought. Quality might be a factor, at least in so much as published novels generally tend towards a certain minimum standard below which we find the stapled fruit of Brer Photocopier, uninviting eBooks, and other denizens of the realm of the self-published. Then again, there are plenty of self-published authors I'd rate very highly - Jason Mills, Jim Mortimore and Andrew Hickey to name but three - and whilst there will always be shite like J. Lee Mace's Naked Deceit to bring down the average, the legitimately published Dan Brown did all right for himself despite this sort of adjectival landfill :
Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.

So getting into print is probably just a combination of talent, luck and blow-jobbing your way to the top of the metaphorical pile, not necessarily all of those or in that order.

Nevertheless, conscious of the unfortunate associations of self-publishing, for better or worse, Paul Hayes resists temptation, seemingly refusing even to accept the term author until given sanction by virtue of publication. Sadly, I can see exactly why he should adopt this stance, and ironically that's what drew me to The Wicket in the Rec where normally I would only click on those buy my great new free downloadable eNovel links out of the same masochistic fascination that draws me to interviews with Bobby Gillespie or those shaved chimps from Oasis.

Whilst Hayes' humility regarding his own abilities seems quite driven, perhaps even excessive, I would guess it's only the expression of a profound desire for progress, and an absolute fear of the vanity which so often blinds aspirant authors to their own failings. I suspect Hayes is harder on himself than even the most demanding editor; and if this is so, then it has at least paid off. The prose he himself describes as merely workmanlike is elegant and hits the mark every single time, never settling for a sketchy version of the point nor on the other hand labouring so hard as to build up a sweat.

The Wicket in the Rec spends roughly a month in the lives of the inhabitants of two small Sussex villages, an understated drama centred around, of all things, the late 1980s repercussions of a cricket match postponed fifty years earlier by the outbreak of the second world war. Initially reading as an exercise in nostalgia, it's more an examination of the same, drawn in part from aspects of the author's childhood. In essence, The Wicket in the Rec - which spins up the most engrossing tempest from details that initially seem inconsequential - is itself about detail, about tiny events that build to storms, and meaning gleaned where least expected:
You will find some moments in your life – some quite random, bizarre, moments that are not particularly notable for anything, but which for some reason stick in your mind. Any reminder of them, no matter how small, can take you right back to that point and place in time. For Nathan Wright, such a moment would always be that particular car journey on that hot July afternoon; in spite of everything else that was to follow that day, this was the part of it he would always remember the most clearly.

Even when he was an old man, the details would always be there. The seats in Elise's car were boiling from having been under the sunlight blazing in through the windows for so long. There was that aroma of warm vinyl, mixed with the rich smell of nicotine and tobacco from her cigarette. There was a battered copy of Melody Maker in the footwell behind the driver's seat, and an empty Cherry Coke bottle next to Nathan in the back.

Then Gemma stuck a tape into the car stereo – it was a Madonna album, True Blue. The track order was burned into Nathan's brain from many journeys in Elise's car where it was playing. Elise put her hand to the stereo and turned it up loud as they raced along the Arundel Road, towards Worthing. Forever more, whenever Nathan would hear the opening bars of 'Papa Don't Preach' at any point in his life, he would feel the rush of memories like a punch to the stomach, and would be back there instantly. He could see the interior of that car, smell the sunlight and nicotine, and be ten years old again.

Nostalgia in itself is probably not a great reason to write a novel, but that doesn't seem to be Hayes' purpose as he gets into the mechanism, casting warm familiarity over an era some may remember quite differently, and without stooping to the sentimentality of Stewart Maconie bleating on about spangles or Nick Berry giving Myra Hindley a friendly clip around the ear to a soundtrack of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. He proves that maxim I'm sure I've heard somewhere about a good story being as much in the telling as the tale; in short, he's a skilled communicator, not least for having just conned me into reading a novel about cricket.

In fact never mind just cricket, all those elements which could have gone so horribly wrong are handled with a rare lightness of touch - real emotion and pathos achieved without pulling the obvious teary-eyed rabbits from overwrought hats. It's a long time since I've been genuinely moved by an emotional reunion scene. More often I'm left only with a slightly wearying insight into the author's viewing habits begging the question of whether there's anyone left who still regards novels as novels rather than potential Hollywood source material.

The Wicket in the Rec, in case all this gushing gives the wrong impression, is by no means the greatest novel I've ever read, but it really is astonishingly good, and probably not even the greatest novel Paul Hayes will write. If there's any justice - which admittedly there may not be - this guy shouldn't have to spend too much longer worrying about getting published.

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