Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Book Review: "Sweeper!" by Steve Bruce

Following a personal recommendation by The Old Batsman, I sought out a copy of Sweeper!, a slim, self-published thriller by the ex-Manchester United footballer and current manager of Sunderland, Steve Bruce.

Penned during the 1999/2000 season, while Steve Bruce was manager of Huddersfield Town FC, the protagonist of Sweeper! is one Steve Barnes, manager of the fictional Leddersfield Town FC.

From that information alone you will, I’m sure, already have an inkling about this novel. And you’d be right: it is one of the great postmodern, deconstructionist works in the British literary canon.

From the very first page, Bruce/Barnes questions the reader’s preconceptions about identity, as club owner “Sir Lawrence Brook” becomes “Sir Laurence Brook” within the space of two sentences. Snide thoughts that this might be a typo due to the lack of a proofreader/editor are quickly dismissed, as the sheer quantity of fundamental spelling inconsistencies can leave the reader in no doubt that they are perfectly deliberate. Not least, Leddersfield Town itself regularly transmogrifies into Leddersford Town. And back again.

Indeed, look carefully and you’ll see that Bruce’s challenging explorations of identity are prefigured by the specially-commissioned cover art, in which we see the real Bruce standing alongside his assistant John Deehan, onto whose image a (deliberately) crude moustache and hairstyle have been photoshopped. Thus, while Bruce/Barnes remains ‘real’, Deehan has been ‘fictionalised’ (in the book he is known as ‘Jock Durham’. Mostly.). But what is ‘real’? Again and again, Bruce/Barnes forces us to confront this question; and again and again, he denies us a clearcut answer.

Bruce’s control of plot and pacing is a masterful high wire act as he treads a delicate line between the direct and the elusive. Delivered in brutally minimalist, matter-of-fact prose (His office was comfortable. There was a computer on the desk.) which also serves as a witty pastiche of the Dan Brown school of writing, the story of a football manager caught up in the affairs of Israeli Nazi-hunters and fanatical kidnappers ought to be easy to follow, yet somehow Bruce contrives to baffle and confuse. By the plot’s ‘conclusion’ the reader will be none the wiser as to the motives of any of the main characters, nor indeed what any of them actually did, nor who they were, nor the significance of any of it to the subplot about Bruce trying a five-three-two sweeper formation for the match against ‘Burnwick’.

As one of the country’s most accomplished defenders in the early 1990s, Steve Bruce was expert at breaking up opposition attacks. He transfers these skills brilliantly to the page, wrongfooting the complacent reader at every turn. We are never allowed to settle as Bruce/Barnes frequently halts the narrative flow with lengthy asides about the technical specifications of his Jaguar motorcar, or some football grounds he has known, or his wife’s predilection for shopping. My favourite example, as we wait eagerly for Bruce to embark on a dangerous mission, is this pensée about breakfast:

I prepared and ate breakfast. My mother always impressed on me as a lad the importance of a good breakfast. I don’t go the full Monty: I can manage without a pork chop and black pudding. But I like cereals, followed by bacon and eggs. And toast with marmalade. All washed down with tea. That’s the kind of breakfast a man such as me needs.

Bathetic statements of the mundane, stark in their beauty, are sprinkled through the text like precious jewels woven into a tapestry: Then my mobile telephone rang. I did not curse the interruption. A mobile phone is a necessary instrument of modern business. And better still: It is a building more than one hundred years old. Built in the Italian style, someone told me. I wouldn’t have known. Architecture, like much else, is a closed book to me.

I cannot have been the only reader or reviewer to have found that phrase 'like much else' profoundly moving.

But these apparent non-sequiturs are of course the whole point: the ghastly, nauseous reality of the ‘ordinary’ – Bruce has been reading his existentialists! Sartre, Kafka, Joyce, Henry Miller: these are Bruce’s literary heroes and mentors. Yet by absorbing the approach of the modernist and postmodernist writers and taking it into new, common-man territory – that of Nationwide First Division football management circa 1999 – Bruce/Barnes democratises these challenging ideas like no other professional sportsman-turned-self-published novelist based in the north east of England of the last thirty years. The following extract, in which Bruce/Barnes faces the prospect of being shot, succinctly encapsulates the ethos:

The gun was level with my belly. So this was what it was like to die. There was no doubt I was going to die. And not even in Newcastle. Not even Premier League. In Halifax, of all places, with a club in the third division.

Thus Sweeper! confronts the reader with as chilling a meditation on mortality as you’ll find. Think of England rating: Five thumbs up!


malty said...

5.0 out of 5 stars BRUCE'S BEST BOOK TO DATE, 18 Feb 2000
By A Customer
SWEEPER! is a worthy successor to Steve's first novel, STRIKER! The story is stronger and the characters are deeper and better developed.

Steve Bruce was Manchester United skipper at a time when the club was emerging from many lean years. He is a hero in Manchester and the north-west. United owe a great debt to Steve.

Now he has turned to authorship. This is a short but excellent novel. It never loses its grip on the reader. I read it in a single sitting and at the end was satisfied and yet wanted more. I am now waiting for Steve's third novel, DEFENDER! It's certain to be good. Steve was the best centre half who never played for England. Now, he is certain to be for soccer what Dick Francis has been for horse racing. Splendid stuff!

His Mums still alive I see.

Perhaps Jeff is behind it, supplementing the day job.

Brit said...

I've already ordered the first in the series, Striker!, for the princely sum of one penny.

There was a proposed third in the series of Bruce/Barnes books, Defender!, but alas it seems that Steve never finished it.

The Old Batsman said...

At last, Sweeper! gets the champion it deserves. Let's hope Bruce somehow reads this [we must assume that he still has 'a computer on the desk'] and decides that Barnes could again become the vehicle for expressing his feelings on his time at Sunderboro.

NB: I suspect Barnes would not want to die in Newcastle now, given that they're 'not even Premier' themselves.

David said...

Now, this is the sort of thing that you should not give away for free.

Also, isn't it obvious that the rumors of an uncompleted third book - literally, an ending that doesn't exist - is merely part of the author's art?

Brit said...

OB - My money is on "Sundercastle".

malty said...

Makumfact....although today my interest in football is marginal my father took me to Roker park in the late nineteen forties, all male, enormous crowds, all standing, packed trains and stations, a sea of cloth caps, long shorts, deafening roar, kids passed overhead to the front, never getting lost, heated animated debate from a people who were anything but. Never a hint of trouble, or so I was told, peeing into bottles or onto the bloke in front, sandwiches, flasks, fifty five thousand scarfs, mostly red and white, Sunderland and Durham accents mixed with Teeside and whatever the away team had, rudimentary loudspekers, programmes.
"You a Geordie, son?" "yes mister," "never mind, your heart's in the right place if you support us."

Years later..."why did you support them and take me," "well, thought you would like to see that they were just the same as us"

Entertainment was in short supply, post 1945.

worm said...

I dont actually know anything about this game called 'football' but if asked by a large group of men in a pub, I always say I am a Sunderland supporter, and then mention something about 'birds' and 'getting well rowdy' before running off to the toilets and escaping out of the window

Willard said...

I'm really cautious about reading every post after last week's slip. Thinks to self: is this a wind up? Oh, so certain I was that this was a wind up... And sadly it isn't.

Oh, cruel world, why do you mock me so?

Brit said...

I am The Confuser, Willard. But yes, this book really does exist and is well worth picking up if you can find it at a reasonable price (about 1p is a reasonable price).

Viagra Online said...

It is a good book, I didn't finish it, but it kept me interested a lot.

Hughesie said...

I just read what must have been a review copy as it ended rather abruptly during a car chase on the outskirts of Halifax. Whether I will seek out a different copy to find out how the story ends is still up in the air.

Anonymous said...

All 3 books (Striker, Sweeper and Defender)were published by Paragon Publishing in Huddersfield. They were written by the owner of the company a guy called Reggie Sharpe. A former headmaster, who was trying to make money as a publisher. He was an obnoxious man, who bordered arrogant to most people who met him. He wrote each book in about 3 days, and then had them printed. Steve Bruce had nothing to do with any of them, I doubt he even read them cause they really were drivel. I think he got paid £2000 for having his name and image on each book, and attending a book signing at Waterstones in Huddersfield. I know this because I played a part in converting the text files from M.S. Word format, which Reggie Sharpe wrote them in, to Apple Mac formats for printing, which at the time was the only way most print houses worked. On the second book cover, Reggie appears in the picture as the janitor with a sweeping brush. The whole affair was a money making scheme, designed to sell Paragons books. Bruce was nothing but a paid figured head who’s fame was used to create awareness. But I think that the sales were poor, with only a few hardened fans parting with their money. The rest of the copies were pulped I believe. Sorry to shatter peoples images of Steve the author, but he wasn’t. You were all conned.