David Storey, son of a Yorkshire miner, is perhaps better known in this country for his many plays than for his novels. Nonetheless, his most notable work prior to "A Prodigal Child" was the massive novel "Saville," which won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, in 1976. "Saville" is a highly detailed and perceptive portrait of a South Yorkshire miner's son who gradually finds himself alienated from his family and his village by a grammar-school education. Not the least of the book's virtues is the way in which the predicaments of its characters illuminate entire movements of economic and social change in post-World War II England.
Following such an achievement, "A Prodigal Child" naturally arouses great expectations. Sadly, it fails to fulfill them. On its own, it is an attractively modest, quite readable novel; but in the shadow of "Saville" and the best of Storey's plays it can be seen as little more than a pale and carelessly written variation on the same old theme. Faults of style are curiously magnified. The sense of wider horizons that so consistently enhances the minute detail of "Saville" is missing from the new novel, leaving it by comparison rather one-dimensional.
The "prodigal child" of the title is Bryan Morley, whose life the novel traces from his birth (into yet another South Yorkshire mining family) to early manhood, where it leaves him poised on the brink of a brilliant career as a sculptor. Its focus is thus deliberately restricted to someone "special," particular, unrepresentative.
Although Bryan's working-class origins are evoked with Storey's usual vivid touch, the lives of his family and the people in the village are obviously of less interest to the author than the "problem" of giftedness in a deprived environment that Bryan is too transparently made to dramatize. Believing in "his personal destiny as a prince," this unlikely working-class hero spends most of the novel pursuing an equally unconvincing wealthy older woman, "whose distinction matched his own . . . a princess to his prince," in fact a lady of ambiguous motivation who rescues Bryan from poverty and philistinism by removing him from his parents' home and sending him to an arty private school.
Disappointingly, this turn of plot drains much of the interest from the novel's original idea--the portrayal of a culturally deprived child genius--by providing a deus ex machina to solve the dilemma of how such a child might rise above his origins to fulfill his potential.
It also is ironic that the novel's greatest appeal lies in its early chapters, which deal with Bryan's parents and older brother and the febrile family life to which Bryan feels so superior. David Storey's skills as a novelist are the skills of a playwright. He is not a visual writer, but a master of dialogue; his forte is the revelation through people's own words of the strength and depth of ordinary relationships, the complex antagonisms within a marriage, the pathos of everyday life. Given the volatile combination of fierceness and loyalty and sadness that Storey reveals at the heart of Bryan's parents' marriage, it is less than convincing when the boy later reflects complacently "that it was the intensity of his feelings, together with their depth, that marked him out from other people."
In fact, the great flaw of "A Prodigal Child" is its hero, Bryan Morley, who, virtually alone in a book full of lively characters, never becomes more than the literary equivalent of a stick figure. In a sense, of course, since Storey's imagination is so nonvisual and his descriptive writing so formulaic, all the characters seem like stick figures, until they speak. Everyone is dutifully designated as tall or short, dark or fair, slender or stout, slim-featured or thick-featured; small children are "it"; people are forever "glancing" at each other; descriptions of their movements or gestures read like stage directions.
It is only their speech that brings them to life. Bryan, however, is represented as such a brooding, self-absorbed creature that he rarely speaks except in monosyllables. The revelation of his giftedness is restricted to his inward thoughts which, in their improbable sophistication, do little but disrupt the otherwise superbly sustained naturalistic flow of the rest of the book.
"Now, sitting in church, he could see his brother in the Senior pew, the Crusader emblem of a knight's head fastened to a shield on the wall behind, and, looking round at the plain-glass windows, at the ochreish-looking walls, he thought, 'If Mrs. Corrigan is my instructress, what is her relationship to the spirit which resides above the cross?' "
In the end, it is difficult really to like a novel whose central character is as stiff and unlikable as Bryan is, even though its supporting cast of "ordinary people" is created with sympathy and shrewdness. "A Prodigal Child" is like the seed of a promising idea that somehow fails to take root and blossom.