This weekend, the last weekend of the World Cup, it’s worth pausing to watch the world celebrate its favorite sport. In the midst of it, you may notice a particular kind of fan: the kind of sports fan that seems, really, to be a fan of numbers. For all their interest in the drama of the game, the noble spirit of the game, the populism of the game; for all their interest in narrative, they’re always, deep-down in their heart of hearts, numbers people. Indeed, for these fans, numbers are the narrative: Years. Averages. Records. Odds and Statistics. The minutes left in the game. The seconds.
If you’re about to start David Peace’s newest novel Red or Dead, a fictional history of Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, the first number you ought to know is 736. This is the number of pages his book has. If you get easily fed up with your quantitative sports-fan friends, you may want to think twice about starting this book. David Peace, like your friend, loves his numbers. Literally all of the forty-five chapters that comprise the first section of his book are mostly counting: Dates. Years. Points. The minutes into the game when players score goals. The league rankings. The rounds of cups and championships. The ages. The trades and sells. And over and over again, the number of supporters who come to the matches at Anfield, the home stadium of the Liverpool Football Club.
He makes it look so easy, David Peace. Like he just booted up his computer, spent some time looking at the LFC archives; sat down at a typewriter one afternoon, and, with some volumes of Gertrude Stein keeping encouraging watch on the table next to him, cranked out this massive red baby of a novel. You will have probably read the comparisons to Melville. Like Moby Dick, this book describes the leadership of one man, his single-minded ambition, and, through the picaresque course of the plot describes a moment in history. But reading the book? Much more like Stein’s The Making of Americans. In its iterative prose. Its reiterative sentences. Its repetition. But also in its care for what a people share, what makes them a team, a town, a nation.
The novel works because it moves between two modes. Bill Shankly—the legendary manager of the Liverpool Football Club during its rise to the First Division and enormous international success in the sixties—is himself an eloquent orator. When he speaks, Peace’s curt narrative style wanes. It dims. It takes a step back. It recedes. You get the picture. This contrast will carry you through all the numbers. When Peace speaks, you will be excited about the match ahead. Meanwhile, the prose of stuttering and of struggle represents the behind the scenes work, the drudgery and repetition and repetition. Peace makes it seem like a walk on the beach, a jog around the pitch. It’s nice to find out, at the conclusion, that it was, you know, work: “This has been a work of fiction,” he writes in his closing thanks. “And so this book is a novel.” He emphasizes his research, his craft, and cites pretty much every book written about Shankly; biographies of the members of the LFC during the sixties and seventies; some Robert Burns for good measure; and the interviews conducted. This is how he finds little gems of stories, like the one about the time they painted Ian St John’s balls— yes those balls — with shoe polish.
Writing Red or Dead was probably engaging, absorbing work. It was probably noble work. The work was probably it’s own reward. This, at least, is the theme Peace is most enthusiastic that his readers bear away with them, carry away with the exhilaration of a triumphant game played in gale force winds and gnawing chill. “Every day you wake up and you can get up and you can do your work, that is a holiday,” he writes. Work is inevitable, but it’s always collective. Later: “You play for every man, boys. So you are every man.” The reward for labor is the collective. Well, eventually, Peace does away with any coyness on Shankly’s part. Near the conclusion of the first section, Shankly just comes out and says it: “I’m a people’s man. A socialist.” So yes, it is a pleasure to affirm here that the “Red” of the title means exactly what you hoped it would mean.
Red means labor. Shankly is as committed to man helping his fellow man as he is committed to the rich sanguine hues of the Liverpudlian flags, the Liverpudlian scarves; their badges and their jerseys. Later, later, when he has the time and energy to reflect, he explains that it is not a theoretical socialism. It is, in fact, more Burnsian in its organic earthiness, in its simple love of humanity. Later, later, of course, he explains that it is something you are born into. It is not something you become. Later, he laughs and argues with Harold Wilson, the four-term Labour Prime Minister, about the condition of the nation. They agree that hard work and love of others is the foundation of a nation. So, yes, as you fleetingly observe his populist politics among the many, many, numbers; among the multitudes, breathe easy. Bill Shankly’s heart is in the right place. The game attendance count was about the people. And throughout, Peace acknowledges the ongoing labor struggles delicately. The times of greatest labor unrest, the states of Emergency and the power shortages overlap with the times of the UFC’s greatest struggle. Games are scheduled an hour earlier. They start at two. They save energy by playing in the sunlight. Shankly himself worked in a coal mine. Then it was shut down. Then he turned to football.
But the first strike of the novel has little to do with these national affairs. It takes place in the second-most intense chapter of the novel, halfway through the first half. It is called “The Dignity of Labor.” It begins with a description of local discontent, but not about labor. Not, at least, the familiar story. It has to do with the publicity of the games. The fans don’t like the Anfield ban on in-stadium cameras. They want to be able to watch the game at home, on their televisions. But who will fill the stands? Who will brave the Liverpudlian weather when they can watch it at home? It is Shankly’s faith in the people that wins out. Shankly knows, Shankly trusts that Liverpool. He trusts that the Spion Kop will always be faithful to the game, to Anfield, to the team. They install the cameras.
But the chapter is not only an argument on behalf of the working class. It is also an argument on behalf of dignity. In the same chapter Shankly and the LFC travel to Romania, controlled, in 1966, by Soviet Russia, a country about which Shankly later expresses something like sympathy. When they travel to Romania, though, the first thing Shankly does in his hotel room is get up on a chair and get up close, get real close to the light bulb; and he tells it: “I know you are listening. I know you are watching. Don’t think I don’t know.” To the team, at dinner, he insists that “it’s always a conspiracy, boys. Always a war of nerves.” It’s not certain which war he’s talking about, but what paranoia! It’s reminiscent of that scene in Glenn Greenwald’s recent book, No Place to Hide, when Ed Snowden hides underneath a blanket so that the NSA and their ceiling cameras won’t be able to catch his passwords.
Shankly’s position on mass media and labor politics, or Peace’s for that matter, isn’t exactly clear. When describing the work of the footballers, his rhetoric diminishes their significance next to hard work of the paying supporters. Football itself has about the same revolutionary charge as the few passages after Shankly’s retirement, when his daily task of responding to fan mail gets called work.
Maybe it’s a comment on the labor of the writer. The best parts of the book are too good to be made up, and Peace’s skill is in his reserve. As an epigraph, he offers, instead of words, the image of a postage stamp of Robert Burns. From Soviet Russia. The stamp might have the last word, but there’s another object that might be even more interesting: a sword. A sword? Yes! A sword. The stamp circulates within and sometime beyond Soviet Russia. Its counterpart is the sword that Winston Churchill commissions to be forged by the Wilkinson Sword People to send to the “STEELHEARTED CITIZENS OF STALINGRAD” for their resolve during the city’s siege in 1942-3. Before it’s sent, though, the icon circulates within Britain. It travels from city to city, like a soccer team, going on tour, so that British eyes may invest it with their admiration. Only then, only once it has been beheld by all the people of Britain, then will it go as a token of solidarity to the people of Stalingrad.
Is this a metaphor for the book? Probably not. Red or Dead was published by Faber & Faber in England in 2013. It sold there very well. It was published in America earlier this summer by Melville House to much fanfare. There is even a special collectors edition, which is, really, beautiful. There are only 250 copies. Each is numbered, and signed by the author. Ah, and they’re covered in red: pages edged in red, red headbands, red papers on the ends, covered in red cloth. But as well-crafted as these objects are, they’re not quite an offering of mutual appreciation. The United States appears almost nowhere in this novel. Shankly visits New York briefly. He is mildly uncomfortable. Then he returns. It’s not a slight. It can’t be a slight. What is there to slight? What history has this nation for soccer or for labor?
Maybe things are changing here. Maybe it is possible to“dream of a different world, we can wish for a better world. We can still strive for that world, we can still work towards that world. That different world, that better world.” No, this is not a Verso books introduction. This Shankly’s rousing plea to convince his bosses for more money to buy a player. And the past few weeks! Are not the glimmerings of a new and better world bisible in the bars and in the banter? In the camaraderie of global competition? In the United States participating in a meaningful way? Oh, what hope in the hearts of football fans! America out in the quarterfinals? No matter. Howard played so well. A new national celebrity. And Costa Rica! The underdog went so far! And the pleasing little hashtag! Truly cosmopolitan in its spelling. Ah, producers and ad-men know how exciting and erotically charged it is to see those attractive, muscled young men take off their shirts.
The point here isn’t that soccer is or is becoming just as commercialized as more popular domestic American sports. That’s an easy, obvious score. Nor is this criticism of the faddishness of international sympathies. It will be a long while before any of your friends will be able to rattle off statistics like those that fill the first half of the book. Shankly and Wilson agree about labor reform: It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. (Actually, they correct later, it’s more like a relay.) Even though the upcoming matches between Germany and Brazil, the Netherlands and Argentina are by no means gifts to the United States, their players are invested with the eyes of their people. This is something to remember while watching this weekend. The labor of the players, of course. Their toned bodies. Their honed reflexes. Their unknown number of days and weeks and years of training and their goal counts and how much they cost their teams. If television can augment the dignity of labor, though, especially in times of maybe even greater surveillance and paranoia, it will probably not be announced in all-caps inscription parading across the footer marquee. It’s there though, really. Peace’s book serves as a subtle reminder of the iterative care invested by a global working class into the more glamorous bodies of its star players.
Red and White and Blue (and a little Gold): Sunday’s game will be comfortable. But maybe the relevant color here is green. It is the color of the Celtic Football Club, one of Liverpool’s great rivals. It is the color of pitches world-wide. When you close this book and set it aside, you will probably be jealous for a history of football, for a history a of labor struggle, a history of an innumerable multitude. Green with envy.
Ana Schwartz: likes rhymes. Likes ’em short.