Sports novels generally rank low on the literature scoreboard — unless you regard “Moby-Dick” as a harpooning competition. But Robert Coover, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace have shown that it is possible to write ultraliterary, even experimental novels about sports. What they did for baseball and tennis is matched, if not trounced, by what British writer David Peace has done for soccer, first with “The Damned Utd” (2006) and now with his massive, mesmerizing “Red or Dead.”
This is an epic treatment of the career of Bill Shankly, who from 1959 to 1974 led the previously mediocre Liverpool Football Club to a series of triumphs. The first two-thirds of the book, subtitled “Shankly Among the Scousers,” is a clipped account of every game the team played during those 15 seasons, complete with stats and attendance figures. The final third, “Shankly Agonistes,” begins with his unexpected decision to retire and dramatizes his final years (he died in 1981 at age 68).
The most radical feature of “Red or Dead” — and one that will try the patience of some readers — is the style. Peace uses short, often incomplete sentences, eschews pronouns and quotation marks, and deliberately repeats phrases and descriptions to excessive length, recalling early modernist works by Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot. (Peace’s subtitles echo Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” and “Sweeney Agonistes.”) Here is the conclusion to a defeat at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium:
“On the bench, the Anfield bench. Bill watched George Best dodge every challenge, George Best elude every tackle. Bill watched George Best spin threads, George Best weave webs. With artistry and with craft, with bravery and with strength. Bill watched Best dance, Bill watched Best sing. And score and score again. And on the bench, the Anfield bench. Bill watched Liverpool Football Club slip and slip again. Liverpool Football Club no longer first in the First Division. Manchester United first in the First Division. Again. Liverpool Football Club second. Again. Second best. Again.”
Peace’s style often transcends modernist aesthetics to evoke ancient epics and medieval ballads, their repetitive formulas and lilting refrains, their stylized actions and heroic gravitas. Each time Liverpool trains for a new season, it is as though they are preparing to besiege the walls of Troy. Shankly is as cunning as Odysseus, as civic-minded as Aeneas, as relentless as Beowulf. He confesses in the final third that “football is my religion,” and the style appropriately resembles liturgical chanting, mystical incantation. For readers who simply want the straight story, there are a couple dozen books about Shankly to choose from (Peace lists them in his concluding “Sources and Acknowledgments”). But “with artistry and craft, with bravery and with strength,” Peace set out to ennoble Shankly’s career into a postmodern epic. Goal!
Shortly after he retires, Shankly describes football as “a hard, relentless task which goes on and on like a river,” which justifies the first part’s relentless, focused narrative. It’s “Total Football,” as he calls it, with very few references to the times. Not a word about that other band of Liverpudlians who rose to fame in the early ’60s, and only four words on 1967’s summer of love: “The summer of love.”
After Shankly retires, the focus widens to take in England in the 1970s, and during two lengthy interviews we learn more about Shankly’s background and philosophy. Not much of a reader, his favorite book is John Stuart Blackie’s “Life of Robert Burns,” and there are several references and allusions to his fellow Scot’s poetry. A committed socialist, Shankly notes that football is a form of socialism: “You play collectively and then you’re very difficult to beat. But if you’ve individuals in your team, then your team will fall down.” During an interview with Harold Wilson, the prime minister tells him, “If you think in sporting analogies, it helps you in other walks of life,” and Shankly tells anyone who will listen that the qualities of a good footballer — determination, ambition, hard work, positive attitude — can be applied to anyone. There are a few schmaltzy scenes at the end, typical of feel-good sports movies, but they are irresistibly moving. Even if, like me, you are a four-eyed aesthete with zero interest in sports, you’ll choke up.
Shankly retires at the top of his game because, he tells his wife, “I’m not enjoying life, love. I need to get it sorted out.” This complicates the novel’s moral because those same qualities that drove Shankly and his team to the top make it difficult to live a fulfilling life. Shankly’s wife and team members are little more than names, his daughters are always offstage, and he has nothing to fall back on after he leaves the game. And although Shankly instinctively thinks in terms of sporting analogies — when he learns of the moon landing in 1969, he thinks, “The flag on the moon, the ball in the goal” — there is a world of difference between a team of engineers and astronauts reaching the moon and a team of men in red shorts kicking a ball up and down a field. Shankly also thinks of football in terms of salvation and redemption, and compares the elusive Football Association Cup to the Holy Grail. The reader can decide whether this is sublime or ridiculous.
These moral quandaries, like those in “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid,” only enrich Peace’s ambitious novel. As both postmodern epic and ultimate sports novel, “Red or Dead” is a winner.
Moore is the author of “The Novel: An Alternative History.”
RED OR DEAD
By David Peace
Melville. 720 pp. $30.