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World Perspective | Britain

Candidate for Booker Prize Wins a Busload of Praise for 1st Novel

October 09, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Magnus Mills is a bus driver--on the No. 159 from South London to Oxford Circus--whose first novel has won him a nomination for Britain's top fiction prize and an entree into the country's literary elite.

His book, "The Restraint of Beasts," has been sold to publishers in nine countries, including the United States, where Arcade of New York will bring it out this month. A British producer bought the film rights, and the reclusive writer Thomas Pynchon gave it high praise: "A demented, deadpan comic wonder," he wrote for the jacket.

But it is Mills' $8.87-an-hour day job that has drawn the most comment, for while many first-time novelists have been short-listed for the Booker Prize, Mills apparently is the first bus driver to earn the distinction.

A dream come true?

More like a double-edged sword, Mills says. He dreamed of having a novel published and admits his bus-driver status is what piqued an agent's interest in his book. It is the reason reporters love to interview him, and it even won him a spot on David Frost's prestigious "Breakfast with Frost" program, right before former Prime Minister Edward Heath.

"I don't mind people going on about it. I just don't want someone to pick up the book and get to page 20 and say, 'Where are the buses?' " Mills said.

And while most reviews of his satirical novel have been good, the bus driver has earned a few snipes.

The Irish Times, lamenting the fact that writers such as William Trevor did not make the cut from 125 to six nominees on the Booker short list, noted that Mills' occupation was drawing far more notice than his book.

Mills, 44, clearly is touchy about the criticism.

"I've been told by my people that I'm on the list because of my book. I have said before, if I'm on the list because I'm a bus driver, I don't want to be there," he said. "I don't think the Danish or the Italians bought it because I'm a bus driver."

Last year's Booker winner was Arundhati Roy's first novel, "The God of Small Things." Mills is up against stiff competition this year from established writers such as Beryl Bainbridge, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. Other lesser-known contenders are Martin Booth and Patrick McCabe. Mills is considered a dark horse for the Oct. 27 prize.

"The Restraint of Beasts" is a tale of two Scottish laborers, Tam and Richie, and the unnamed narrator who is their English foreman. The three men build fences, as Mills did for many years, smoke a lot and live for their evenings at the pub. Along the way, they manage to kill a client or two in a bloodless manner that seems almost unremarkable. The story is told in a flat, understated voice that mirrors the monotonous life of the laborer. The effect is pleasantly eccentric.

"I try not to read the reviews," Mills said. "My wife takes the cuttings and hides them away. But I did see one that said I had to learn what makes people tick and that my job as a bus driver should help me do that. It was very patronizing, and the person who wrote it obviously never has driven a bus."

Mills explained that he hardly sees the people on the bus from his closed cabin. They are passengers, crowds to be herded on and off the bus, flows of humanity and potential complaints. But not individuals to know. Those drivers and conductors who meet the public have little real contact.

"Most people who catch the bus don't see anything, don't look at the driver," he said. "You have to . . . defend yourself against that or the job would finish you in a week."

Mills has been at it for 12 years, since he moved to London from northern England and took a "temporary" job driving. In his spare time, he wrote a newspaper column about bus driving and other articles, read modern classics and worked on his novel for 2 1/2 years. Now, despite his success and the sale of his second novel--about a man who accidentally spills a tin of paint and thereby signs his own death warrant--Mills cannot bring himself to quit his day job.

He is, after all these years, a bus driver. A man who keeps to a schedule so precise that when asked what time he begins work, he answers: "10:13." He does not worry about losing the pay.

"I'm not afraid financially, I'm afraid of being unoccupied," Mills said.

But isn't there a book in bus driving?

"There's a lot of pressure for me to write about buses," Mills said. "I might one day, but at the moment, it's too close to my existence."

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