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!