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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Lost & Found: Tana Wojczuk on Alan Sillitoe
I had been running away, feeling useless under the malarial symptoms of my first semester at college: alternately giddy and nauseated, my gut churning from several indigestible love affairs I’d left behind in Oregon. Sick of myself and all my self-referential classmates, I bounced restlessly around my parents’ house looking for something to moor myself to. As usual I gravitated to the mysterious and forbidden realm of my dad’s studio. Once, when he was out of town, I rummaged in his top desk drawer and uncovered an Altoids tin with a three-finger pinch of pot, Top rolling papers, and a pack of dirty “position of the day” trading cards. A feast of food for thought. I’d long since exploited the mystery of the desk drawers, so I scanned listlessly over dad’s bookshelf. Between a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and a candy-striped Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola, by Kinky Friedman, I found a slim volume entitled The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The title appealed to me, as did the silly last name of its author, Alan Sillitoe. Although the spine was hardly creased, when I held it in my hands it exhaled the woody aroma of used books the world over, a basement smell like rotting leaves.
Sillitoe grew up in the slums of Nottingham, England, an arrow’s flight away from Sherwood Forest. His father was a violent and verbally abusive man, and young Alan often escaped blows by remaining buried in a book. In his autobiography, A Life Without Armour, he describes the first classics he read with the ebullience of a boy counting his birthday candles. A blue-collar writer who is candid about the soul-killing barbs of poverty, Alan Sillitoe has been called one of the Angry Young Men. Yet Sillitoe has denied being a part of any one literary movement and has shrugged of the laurels of being a working-class novelist. After a brief burst of fame due to winning the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Loneliness, and adapting it and his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, into films, he subsided into obscurity.
The title piece in Loneliness, a spare collection of short stories, begins in the mind of a young man sent to a Borstal, or prison for young boys. While he is there, the guards discover he is a skilled long-distance runner and plan to use him to win the cross-country cup. But as he wakes up early to run cross-country, the runner plans picturesque revenge. He decides to race, but throw the cup, and the tumult that ensues is a stunning victory for his soul:
“No, I won’t get them that cup, even though the stupid tash-twitching bastard has all his hopes in me. Because what does his barmy hope mean? I ask myself. Trot-trot-trot, slap-slap-slap, over the stream and into the wood where it’s almost dark and frosty-dew twigs sting my legs… I know when he talks to me and I look into his army mug that I’m alive and he’s dead. If he ran ten yards into what goes on in my guts he’d drop dead as well—with surprise. At the moment, it’s dead blokes like him as have the whip-hand over blokes like me, and I’m almost dead sure it’ll always be like that, but even so, by Christ, I’d rather be like I am—always on the run and breaking into shops for a packet of fags and a jar of jam—than have the whip-hand over somebody else and be dead from the toenails up.”
Sillitoe sets language in motion like an engineer, which he almost became. The form and tempo of his words buoy the actions in the story, just as the runner’s breath burns like fuel in his lungs, allowing him to push forward. Sillitoe eschews explication for action, though often violent and angry. But for his characters, anger is a kind of optimism. Despite deprivation, they rage against the dying light, and Sillitoe’s words put the match to their fury. As a young dissipated woman, wearied by sex and boredom, I could understand the terror of waking up to stare in my own matte pupils. Those who do not fight are clearly dead.
The Runner’s determination not to become “dead from the toenails up” reverberates through the characters in Loneliness. Through their struggles, Sillitoe reveals his characters’’ longing for joy. Joy, in his view, is not antithetical to poverty or vice, and a small moment of joy is sometimes enough to feed one for a lifetime.
As I read, I sat on the paint-splattered floor. The brightness of the day increased and dust motes hummed in the air. All my senses cohered and jumped into the stream of words.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would steal the book and carry it with me from one studio apartment to the next, trying to absorb and understand its newness. I thought of my dad’s own childhood in Canarsie, New York. He had written his name and the name of Brooklyn Tech High School on the inside cover. I wondered what hip teacher had assigned this novel about toughness and softness, about the poet and the thief, to a group of teenagers. I began to realize that my own hatred for privilege was illusory, and that regardless of my fashionable cynicism, I would still need to fight those who craved to have the whip-hand over someone else. In Sillitoe’s writing I found not only a skilled and passionate writer, but a reminder to feed my own brief spark. Soberly, I carried the now-mulching paperback inside to show my dad, a poet hooligan whose spirit is very much alive, only to find out that he’d never read it, although he’d carried it with him for almost forty years intending to.
Tana Wojczuk’s essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Lapham’s Quarterly, Tin House and elsewhere. She teaches at Columbia University and is an editor at Guernica Magazine. Find more of her work at tanawojczuk.com and follow @tanawojczuk.