“REPETITION. Repetition. Repetition.”
The opening lines of Red or Dead are unambiguous. They also echo David Peace’s previous soccer novel, The Damned Utd, which begins with: “Repetition. Repetition — ”
Over the course of nine novels, Peace has fictionalized real-life events (famous serial killings, The Red-Riding Quartet and Tokyo Year Zero; a notorious Japanese poisoning, Occupied City; a nationwide mining strike, GB84; the story of Brian Clough's infamous 44-day tenure as manager of the Leeds United soccer team, The Damned Utd) in dense, addictive prose that relies heavily on the use of repetition.
“Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton,” beats through the protagonist’s head in Tokyo Year Zero. Brian Clough cannot stop thinking the name of his team (“Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby — ”) during a pivotal game in The Damned Utd. But here, in Red or Dead —a fictional biography of Bill Shankly, the manager who built his Liverpool team into a European powerhouse — Peace reaches his repetitive apex.
… nowhere and nothing. Nothing but the sound of chains rattling, knives sharpening and spades digging. At your back, in your shadow. Rattling, sharpening, digging. And ticking. The clock ticking. No matter what you knew. No matter what you did. The clock ticking always ticking. Binding you, stabbing you and burying you. In the wasteland, in the wilderness. No matter what you knew. No matter what you believed. No matter what you did. There was always, already the wasteland. There was always, already …
This extremity of style is both intoxicating and inviting to parody. I haven’t seen this many imitations of a writer’s prose since Tao Lin’s Richard Yates came out, and especially not in book reviews. Everyone from professional criticsto Goodreads users take a crack at it. One of the latter, a man named Declan, writes:
Red or Dead is a novel. Red or Dead is a novel about Bill Shankly. Bill Shankly of Liverpool Football Club. Bill Shankly the manager of Liverpool Football Club. The manager of Liverpool Football Club in the 1960s and 1970s.
Iain Macintosh of The Mirror goes further:
And so Iain sighed. Iain closed the book. Iain lifted the book above his head. Iain brought the book down on his head with as much force as he could muster. Iain slipped into the sweet, sweet embrace of unconsciousness.
And so, at more than 700 pages, this fact of style is perhaps the book’s most important quality. The truism that if you can’t get through the first page of a book, you’ll not likely see the last — is especially relevant here. There is no gooey center that readers just have to power through to reach, no softening of the book’s rhythmic rigidity. Red or Dead is what it is, something which can also be said of its protagonist, Bill Shankly.
Let’s take a break for some context. Bill Shankly was the manager of the Liverpool Football Club from 1959 to 1974, a man who led the once second-string team back into the highest division of play in Britain, and on to several league championships and cups from English and European tournaments. He was beloved by Liverpool Football Club’s large, vocal fan base. (Very vocal: they regularly sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — a Gerry & the Pacemakers cover of a song from Carousel — at matches, a tradition Shankly helped start.) He is kind and fair and hardworking. He loves his wife and he loves his team. Peace calls Shankly “a saint. A Red Saint.”
It’s useful, then, to look at Red or Dead as less a fictional biography (please no one ever say “faction”) and more as a work of hagiography, if one written by an Oulipo-sympathizer. And so Shankly here remains rather flat, but flat in the way of a Byzantine icon: his is a magnetic simplicity, where a repeated gesture becomes meaning, and, as if haloed in gold leaf, he glows crimson. But where Peace eschews complexity in Shankly’s character — he is clearly a good man, a good husband, a good manager — he finds it in the novel’s structure, in its brutal and beautiful repetition.
Red or Dead’s first half has all of the qualities of a good sports movie. A group of underdogs defy expectations and make it to the big leagues! Hard work and persistence pay off with the championship! This section is great for all the reasons sports movies are great: it is a pleasure to watch unfold. But for Peace, who has made his reputation on books that pull back the layers of corruption and crime, this is just the middle of the story. After all, the novel’s title posits only two options, the scarlet of Liverpool Football Club or, well, death.
Shankly’s retirement in 1974 at age 60, though 25 years after he joined Liverpool, took many people by surprise. While he was no longer a young man, he was not precisely old. He had also just won the second FA cup of his career as a manager. And what would Bill Shankly, whose whole life had been football, Liverpool football, do without it? This question, of obsolescence, is the book’s true heart.
Age haunts the footballers of Red or Dead. Each player knows that their time, eventually, will run out, that their bodies will fail them, that they will no longer be able to do the work they love. Shankly, who had successfully transitioned from player to manager in his early thirties, is acutely aware of endings. When he finally removes his once-star player, an aging Ian St. John, from the roster, he says, “It comes to us all, son. And so you have to be prepared. You have to be ready, son. Because you will have to decide how you will deal with it. Will it be with grace and with dignity? Or will it be with anger and with bitterness?”
While athletes face the dwindling of their usefulness much earlier than the rest of us schlubs, their situation is painfully, unavoidably universal. The real-life Shankly is often quoted as having said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Perhaps he meant (it’s said he was misquoted here) that in fact football is life and death. It is joy and pain, birth and death, and repetition, repetition, repetition.
On his knees, Bill knew flesh aged. Flesh strained and flesh tore. In the damp. Bill knew bones aged. Bones fractured and bones broke. In the dry. Bodies aging. Bit by bit. Older and older, weaker and weaker. Bodies dying. Bit by bit. Hour by hour, day by day. In the damp and in the dry. In the damp and in the dry. Bill knew that was the battle. That was the war. The battle against age, the war against death. The battle you could not win, the war you could never win. But the battle you must try to fight. Hour by hour. The war you must try to win. Day by day. In the damp and in the dry. On his knees, Bill knew you had to fight against age. Hour by hour, day by day. In the damp and in the dry. On his knees, Bill knew you had to try to beat death. You had to try, you had to try.
And so Peace’s repetition, though it is relentless, gets at the very heart of life as it is lived. For who is Shankly but a collection of days and nights, of matches and trainings, of wins and losses, of aphorisms and habits? The book’s rigidity feels organic. It feels true.
I’ll confess here that I am no fan of football, or really any kind of professional sport. I’ve no animosity towards athletics, just an absence of interest. And so I am doubly removed from the contents of this book, about a British football legend from the 1960s and 1970s, as someone not into sports in general and totally clueless about British football in particular. Let me be clear: this book is thoroughly, completely about football. (Peace recounts nearly every single match Shankly oversaw as Liverpool’s manager, a feat he was able to pull off with the help of encyclopedic fan websites.) Ultimately, whether or not you understand them, sports are inherently dramatic. And while almost everything in the book is, more or less, based on some kind of fact or verifiable source — I didn’t feel like my ignorance of their reality made the book any less full. Plus: there’s always Wikipedia.
Just under 100 pages into the novel, in a September 1962 game in Liverpool’s first season in the first division in eight years, a chant begins:
And now the crowd roared with laughter, roared in celebration, in celebration of justice, of justice done —
But now, amongst that laughter, in amongst that celebration, now other voices began to rise, began to echo, quietly and slowly, then louder and faster. LI-VER-POOL, LI-VER-POOL, LI-VER-POOL…
By February of the same season, the chant has ballooned in size and frequency, taking over the text:
LI-VER-POOL. And then the penalty. LI-VER-POOL. And then the goal. LI-VER-POOL. From the spot. LI-VER-POOL. By Moran. LI-VER-POOL. Two-nil.
And, somehow — I imagine this is the linguistic version of an autostereogram — as I read the “LI-VER-POOL” punctuate each description of play, I started to hear it. Not a single voice in my own head, but a crowd, a whole stadium of them: that weird echo-y flatness of tens of thousands of people all calling out together. It was astonishing, like some kind of magic trick had been performed. Maybe it’s better described as a miracle.
Molly McArdle's fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in The Rumpus, Bitch Magazine, PANK, and Library Journal. She's currently working on her MFA in fiction at UMass Amherst and also runs The Rumblr (The Rumpus on Tumblr).