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Paperback Writers: Sillitoe's still running

Alan Sillitoe, now in his 80s, grew up in Nottingham, in the English midlands, in the kind of squalor and poverty that, a century earlier, gave Charles Dickens nightmares. Sillitoe's father was a violent drunk; his mother, on occasion, was forced to prostitute herself. The family, constantly fighting to stay one step ahead of debt and rent collectors, was often on the move, dodging from one squalid tenement to the next, wheeling their belongings in a hand-cart. An abiding memory of his childhood, Sillitoe has written, was of his father raising his fist and his mother pleading: "Not in the face."

Sillitoe freed himself through reading and learning and then launching out and starting to write, but he never tried to leave the grim background behind. Rather, he drilled it, mined it, notably in his first two books, the novel "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (just re-issued on Vintage: 256 pp., $15), and a collection of a stories, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" (Vintage: 192 pp., $14). These were originally published as the staid 1950s rumbled into the 1960s, and both were famously filmed, launching the careers of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, respectively. Up until that moment, the English working-class novel had typically been about aspiration and escape. Sillitoe helped break the mold that D.H. Lawrence (another Nottingham lad) had created with "Sons and Lovers." Sillitoe's characters don't want to climb up; they want to get by and have no scruples about how they do it.

Arthur Seaton, the twentysomething hero of "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," is a rebel, a rogue who nonetheless knows he'll stay inside the system that he treats with contempt and aggression. One of his mottoes is: "Don't let the bastards grind yer down." Seaton's not always likable, but he's irrepressible, working at a lathe in the Raleigh bicycle factory in Nottingham, bored out of his bonce most of the time but earning good money and waiting for Saturday night, which is always party night, "the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning big wheel of the year."

Seaton gets wasted and chases skirts, and so much the better if the woman he beds happens to be married. Less risk of terminal attachment that way. He's smart and knows about politics, and he plays at being a communist, if he thinks he'll get a reaction from it, but all he really wants is a good time. His amorality is brazen and furious, though not careless. He calculates that he must cheat the world before it cheats him, although the more thoughtful Sunday morning side of him accepts that sometimes he'll be rumbled and get punished. "Everyone in the world is caught, somehow, one way or another, and those who weren't were always on the way to it," he thinks.

Smith, the hero of the title story in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," is just a teenager, but, unlike Seaton, he's already been caught, busted for robbing a bakery and sent to a borstal (reform school) where the authorities try to put him on the path to social usefulness by turning him into a runner. No such chance, although Smith pretends to go along with the idea. "I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age (and still am) and in any case I didn't mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police," he says.

In the story's near-legendary climax, though, "deaf, daft and blind" to what's being demanded of him, and refusing, too, to pursue the straightest line toward his own self-interest, Smith throws a race, knowing that for the rest of his life he'll be "crossing country all on my own no matter how bad it feels." The reader whoops and yells.

The fierce independence of these characters prefigured ambiguous true-life heroes of the English working class like John Lennon and Pete Townshend, while Sillitoe's tone of up-yours defiance inspired Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" and numerous more recent bards of the downtrodden such as James Kelman, Richard Milward and Irvine Welsh. The Arctic Monkeys took the title of their first album, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," from another of Arthur Seaton's bolshie mottoes, and I'd guess that the opening paragraph of "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" was floating somewhere at the back of Martin Amis' mind when he wrote the memorable beginning of his own first novel, "The Rachel Papers."

Sillitoe, in other words, still pushes major cultural freight. Beyond and behind the question of his influence, however, lurks the matter of his style, his mastery of craft. Reflecting his characters, Sillitoe is brash in some ways, cunning and sly in others, and a story like "The Match," which spills the male section of its cast out of a football match and toward domestic violence one foggy Saturday afternoon, is an almost perfect example of the form: The situation leads to a climax that seems inevitable even as Sillitoe makes us dread it. "He hit her once, twice, three times across the head, and knocked her to the ground. The little boy wailed, and his sister came running in from the parlor. . . . " The shock of this is then offset and heightened by the very end of the piece, which gives the reader a little lob of irony; the effect is unforgettable.

Fifty years ago, in the pages of the New Republic, the young John Updike predicted Sillitoe would show stamina, and Updike was right. Sillitoe has published scores of books, and while it could be argued that the New Yorker story "The Ragman's Daughter" is the most assured and most moving thing he's ever done, and the novel "Raw Material" (a terse excursion into family history) maybe the most ambitious, we're all going to go on remembering him for these first, not flowerings, but explosions of his talent. In "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" the writing can seem, occasionally, a little overcooked, but more often it swings with casual poetry and snaps with beautiful invective:

"They're training me up fine for the big sports day when all the pig-faced snotty-nosed dukes and ladies -- who can't add two and two together and would mess themselves like loonies if they didn't have slaves to beck-and-call -- come and make speeches to us about sports being just the thing to get us leading an honest life and keep our itching finger-ends off them shop locks and safe handles," thinks Smith, running and "seeing his smoky breath go out into the air."

And here's Arthur Seaton, letting his mind roam while his body proceeds with numbing work at the lathe:

"Factories sweat you to death, labor exchanges talk you to death, insurance and income tax offices milk money from your wage packets and rob you to death. And if you're still left with a tiny bit of life after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death. And if you're clever enough to stay out of the army you get bombed to death."

This sounds not only like the cheeky underdog of 1950s Britain but everyman, anytime, anyplace. Sillitoe nailed something.

Rayner is the author of many books, including the recent "A Bright and Guilty Place." Paperback Writers appears at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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