FOR SHEER LONELINESS, I think writing a novel beats running any day. $1Alan Sillitoe evidently agrees. Smith, the cross-country racing deliquent of his famous story, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," ends his workout with a sprint toward a kind of anarchistic, angry-young-man sanity. hBut Ernest Cotgrave, the hero of Sillitoe's latest novel, The Storyteller , gradually collapses into paranoia and madness.
Cotgrave is a product of the same grim, lively landscape in which many of this distinguished author's earlier books are set -- the factories, mills and pubs of industrial Britian. But while his mates are learning to dig coal and work metal, young Ernie discovers that he can disarm bullies by spinning fanciful yarns -- ornate, comic adventure stories that seem to pop out of his mouth "as if someone or something -- call it God, if you like -- took over and told the story through him."
Born out of fear, this gift turns into a life's vocation and curse. Cotgrave spins yarns in pubs, at first for pennies and pints, then for a respectable living. He marries, divorces, and grows in stature in his odd profession until he is finally hired as a featured entertainer on a swanky cruise ship. Meanwhile, though, a sense of menace -- of something or someone following him -- casts a growing shadow over his life. Once at sea, it overtakes him; he becomes convinced that the "interior bullies who are called characters" are after him in real life, and he suffers a violent schizophrenic break. After a stint in a mental hospital, he returns to himself to find a loving woman waiting, as well as "one more story to tell."
Along the way, Ernie tells a few marvelous tales: about a swashbuckling uncle who lives in a house full of "precious heir-loom clocks"; about a near-riot in a police station when four generations of loafers get the news that their aged matriarch has left her life's savings on a bus; of two provincial lovers who steal away for an illicit London weekend, only to end up on crutches and in bed with the wrong partners; of a man who meets the dark side of his own soul driving north on the M1 motorway; of pranks and sexual intrigue in a plywood factory; of a boy who nearly drowns after falling through thin ice. The tales are rich in detail and suspense, worth at least a pint for anyone who could tell them in a pub.
But the problem is that Ernest Cotgrave probably wouldn't have found his own story worth telling. Not much really happens to him until the final breakdown, which is too confused to be truly frightening; most of the other characters, including Cotgrave's wife, Marion, are shadows vaguely refracted through Ernie's narrative voice. What is missing is just what is central to the stories-in-the-story, and to Sillitoe's other work: the details of life deeply felt, or reality rendered with care and precision.
In fact, The Storyteller seems less a novel than a distinguished novelist's anguished meditation on his own craft. Ernie Cotgrave's career as a pub entertainer is not realistic, but it does rather closely parallel the career of a novelist in (let's say) postwar England: years of obscurity and self-doubt, growing recognition allowing a belated climb into the middle class, disagreeable encounters with university students, marital failure, a Gilbert Pinfold-like breakdown at sea, and new hope in middle age with a new wife.
As a view of the novelist's psychic life, The Storyteller is unrelievedly grim. John Barth once wrote a novella in which he attributed Scheherazade's narrative skill to tingling sexuality; Sillitoe, it seems, would imagine her to be motivated by fear of the scimitar. Ernie Cotgrave is a timid, imcompetent boy, unable to tell time or tie his shoes; he turns to stories purely out of fear of bullies on the playground. As he grows older, this turns to fear of death, and then finally into a kind of paranoid guilt. He does psychic violence to strangers and friends -- throwing them into his stories and rearranging their lives with Godlike indifference. In time, he does the same to his loved ones. In the moments before his breakdown, he taunts his audience (or readers): "I take a razor-sharp knife to your soul . . . It's the dirty business of a self-confessed murderer who robs people, sucks them dry and drives them mad." The final victim, of course, is himself.
Thus, it should not be surprising that the only novelist who appears in the book -- Graham Greene, in a cameo appearance under his own name -- is a somewhat unpleasant figure with menacing intentions, "a sallow chap, a bit puffy" with "soft, kindly eyes, the sort that didn't deceive because you knew there was plenty of steel behind."
The Storyteller is a cautionary tale for writers, about the dark side of the fiction business, which involves a kind of agressive solitude, at once disorienting and amoral. But there is a bright side to writing, as well -- moments of tremendous freedom, compassion and insight. Poor Ernie Cotgrave never has such moments; but Sillitoe, I am sure, has. "It's a treat being a long-distance runner," Smith told us, "out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do . . . Everything's dead, but good, because it's dead before coming alive, not dead after being alive." Let's hope that by his next book, this fine storyteller will be back in stride.