What is most startling about Sillitoe's work as shown in this new collection is his sustained rage and more-or-less explicit endorsement of violent hedonism. Sabotage -- of oneself or the machines on the shop floor or classroom instruction -- is a mark of this English hipster. "The Firebug," one story from Sillitoe's 1963 book "The Ragman's Daughter," is an exercise in pure mayhem, the birth and flickering out of a psychopathic arsonist. In perhaps the scariest vignette -- from the story "On Saturday Afternoon" in the collection "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" -- a bored teenager helps an older unemployed man hang himself and objects when a police officer cuts the man down at the last minute, resenting even more the copper's reasoning. "You might think [it's your life]," the policeman tells the would-be suicide, "but it ain't.... You'll get five years [in prison] for this." We own nothing, Sillitoe tells us, not even our own lives.
Class antagonism as such doesn't figure much in Sillitoe, but when it does it's usually because the man has married "above" his station. In "Revenge" (from the 1968 book "Guzman, Go Home") middle-class Caroline marries the "noble savage" Richard only to discover that he isn't her fantasy of what a "real" worker ought to be. Almost immediately she begins to serve his tea with a loving joke, "How do you know it's not poisoned?" -- which, of course, isn't a joke at all at the end. Just about the worst fate that can befall a Sillitoe working bloke is to find a woman stronger than himself; and in his northern England nothing is easier.
Sillitoe, who will be 77 in March, is one of five children of a violent father and a semi-prostitute mother. He left a slum school in Nottingham at 14 to work in a bicycle factory, where noise "punched you in the face like a boxing glove." His voice, especially in the early stories, is utterly authentic.
His work doesn't mesh with my own experiences of the same sort of people in the same era. Everything he says is true, I'm sure, but I heard more laughter and saw more solidarity along with the harsh depression that tends to be a Sillitoe trademark. But Sillitoe sees what he sees, not what I saw. I respond more to the occasional antic in his work -- the poaching of the laird's fox and bedding your best friend's gal and robbing the gas meter -- than the predictably grim denouements.
Sillitoe has produced 50 books (including children's tales, such as the "Marmalade Jim" series, and the 2004 novel "A Man of His Time"), as well as poetry and hundreds of essays in the 47 years since "Saturday Night." Unlike so many of his posturing contemporaries who became a sort of establishment themselves -- some, like John Braine ("Room at the Top"), turned into harrumphing Tories -- Sillitoe was never anybody's establishment. He didn't die, and he failed to become a pompous bore. Arthur Seaton would appreciate that. *