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A warm and sentimental novel about... skinheads? [Jul. 15th, 2008|07:17 pm]
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Just read John King's latest novel, Skinheads. King came to prominence a few years back with The Football Factory, first in a trilogy about British football (i.e. soccer) hooliganism. The trilogy is powerful and at times unpleasant reading; like Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, it's undeniably good writing about bad things. Among his other books is Human Punk, a nostalgic look at being a teenager in a London suburb as the mid-70s punk rock scene is exploding (the title is a song by the Ruts).

So, if anyone was going to write a novel from the perspective of British skinheads, King's the one to do it. King's skinheads are not the racist and fascist skinheads who were more or less created by the UK's neo-Nazi National Front movement in the late 1970s; they're the reggae-loving class of 1968, proud of their British heritage but also proud to be working class, socialist, and (the main characters, at least) anti-racist. And really, really into Jamaican ska and early reggae. I had to put on a Trojan Records compilation as a soundtrack part of the time I was reading this, so I could actually hear the Harry J Allstars play "Liquidator" or Symarip play "Skinhead Moonstomp" on the stereo instead of just in my mind every time they were mentioned in the book.

Anyway, the protagonist of the novel is Terry, pushing 50, worried about an illnes the doctors haven't been able to diagnose yet, still haunted by the loss of his wife in a traffic accident a decade earlier, still living for his old skinhead reggae records, his minicab firm, his friends from the old skinhead and Chelsea firm (hooligans) days, and his teenage son, Lol, a teenager who wants to start a punk band. The present day chapters follow Terry, his nephew Ray, and Lol through the days leading up to Terry's 50th; flashback chapters look back at the beginning of the skinhead scene with Terry in 1968 and the revival with the Oi! skins a decade later with Ray.

The violence of the skinhead scene isn't whitewashed, and the fact that a lot of boneheads actually were racist is dealt with as well. But King's characters also resent what they see as simplistic media coverage that tars anti-racist socialist skinheads with the same brush as the neo-Nazis. And while some of his characters are entirely sympathetic and politically and racially enlightened, there doesn't seem to be a lot of openmindedness as far as gays are concerned. Or Europeans. I wouldn't want to hang out with the characters of this book, but I wouldn't want to hang out with the characters in Trainspotting, either.

But despite the moral ambiguity of some of the characters, it's a well-written book, one that's a fun read as well. Terry in particular is a well-drawn character and his story is emotionally involving.

But is it literature? Or does subject matter like football hooliganism, punk rock, and skinhead culture mean that King's books can't be more than pulp fiction? Well, as it happens, there's some actual pulp fiction out there on those subjects. I haven't read Richard Allen's 1970s skinhead novels, which have a cult following, but I've never come across anything to suggest much in the way of literary content. I read one of Dougie Brimson's football hooligan novels, which is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- crap. And for punks and skinheads, there's Steve Goodman's novel England Belongs to Me (title from a Cock Sparrer song), which tells an entertaining enough story with a writing style that could be charitably described as amateurish but enthusiastic. But you don't have to compare King to those writers to accept that he's working in the field of modern British literature. Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, and other writers with distinctive styles dealing with lowlife characters are taken seriously; so too is King. If anything detracts from the literariness of Skinheads, it's not the subject matter, it's that it's a bit too sentimental.
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