Books: A rite of passage with no violence or taboos
Sunday 21 February 1999
by Stephen Foster Faber pounds 9.99
The best accounts of growing up tend to masquerade as something else; rites of passage, unveiled and unabashed, can make for reading which is embarrassing, fey or merely bland. Stephen Foster's debut is unashamedly a memoir - unashamedly focused on the transition from childhood to manhood, and on the strange sensuousness of the everyday. It dallies with the idea that it is a novel or a set of musings, but it is at heart a recollection of the scattered and hitherto unexamined fragments of a real and often simple life.
There is a voguish fascination with the premature self-canonisation of youthful autobiography, and fashion has dictated that these lives should be punctuated with a suitable number of acts of violence and breaches of taboo. Foster's essay has the integrity not to pretend to such hip ingredients; the world he describes is defined in terms of chores, school, football, shunned responsibility, embraced responsibility, the suppressed sex urge, and more chores, chores, chores. His fictional alter ego works as a Commis Chef, gutting trout and pheasants; he works as a driver for a dodgy cab firm; he does what he can to earn enough for the next gig and the next pint. This is a world where rock songs have to be About Life, where capital letters denote what matters (what others "Might Think", football "Match Days", the facts you "Know"). A hospital "smells of antiseptic", wide boys drive red cars, and stallholders look like their wares.
Amidst all this, there is a tendency for feeling to ossify as cliche. The plan, of course, is to revivify the dead image and reanimate the shattered past. The result, however, is a mixture of forced images ("Gnats frost our hair like icing sugar on a mince tart") and skewed truisms ("The best way to attract attention is to behave a bit clueless here and there"). It requires a footnote for us to be told, importantly, that "All chefs swear all the time." As if we didn't know - but this is typical. The prose skids along with careful carelessness: a dog sits "quiet at attention like a statue at the gate of a big house", a crewcut is "a long skinhead". Even the book's gawky title derives from the observation that when you tear a kidney away from its surrounding fat the fat cracks - like breaking skin. Is this a surprise? It doesn't feel like one.
To his credit, Stephen Foster has a nicely tuned ear for the inflections of casual speech. He can write with easy poignancy about real emotion and real life. Ultimately, though, has the feel of the necessary purging of sequestered biographical fact that precedes a novel - a formal exercise, in other words, rather than an undertaking which finds its reason in itself - and its stock of home truths and quotidian wisdom would have better served a work of purer fiction, which could have made its honesty seem more than just plain obvious.
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