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The Yips, By Nicola Barker
An offbeat comedy of golf, Luton and ageing swings with gusto but tends to overshoot.
The title of Nicola Barker's ninth novel refers to a disease that has ruined many a golfing career: an uncontrollable nervous twitch that makes a player unable to hole the simplest of putts. Golf being the ultimate microcosm of life, the word has passed into the language and is now used to describe similar afflictions in – and outside of – other sports.
Stuart Ransom, the boorish, washed-up pro golfer at the centre of the book, whose formerly impressive surfer locks are receding at a rate of knots, has had the yips recently – in golf, and in life – and now finds himself in Luton, in and around the "clean but generic" Thistle Hotel. Ransom is like a slightly more time-worn and charismatic Ian Poulter, or perhaps a tightly-wound commuter-belt version of The Big Lebowski's Dude.
The Yips is less the story of Ransom and more the story of the chaos that swirls around him. A specialist in likeable British grotesques, Barker also peoples the novel with an oddjob polymath who has beaten terminal cancer seven times and is married to a woman priest, a tattoo artist and a Muslim sex therapist: underexposed eccentrics of multi-storey car park Metroland who could be seen as wackier siblings to those in Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black. Ransom, though, is easily the most interesting. With his pregnant Jamaican manager and his descriptions of "jurassic" golf courses, he exists in a parallel world where pro golfers are still dullards who talk about themselves in the third person and get words wrong when trying to sound intelligent, but much more entertaining and excitable.
Barker is good on a lot of the golf stuff here: the ongoing fight between "natural" and "technical", the endless hangers-on and bullshitters who now surround the pro game. There are, though, a few hiccups. When talking off his teen handicap, instead of saying he was "playing off scratch", Ransom says he was "playing off par": a phrase more becoming of the mum of an amateur golfer than a former Ryder Cup player. Barker's style is very dialogue-heavy. In descriptive terms, her third-person narrator does little more than tell us what is happening and where. This leaves the characters having to tell a little too much of their own story, with a garrulousness that can be irritating.
Loathers of self-consciously literary writing put off by comparisons to Ali Smith can relax: Barker's much more fun and childlike than that. The odd stuff is so frequent and breakneck-paced, though, that it often ceases to be memorable. I wanted Barker to slow down: to flesh out her descriptions with the kind of colour another chronicler of Little English lives, Philip Hensher, did in last year's brilliant The King of the Badgers. The Yips cannot be faulted for its free-flowing imagination but by the end, I was gagging for someone to tell me the larger story of Ransom's decline in a calm, omniscient voice. Yipping can often come about when a golfer "gets in their own way" by becoming too ponderous and technical. As much as golf is a microcosm of life, though, it's not a microcosm of novel-writing, and Barker could perhaps stand to get in her own way a little bit more.
Tom Cox is the author of 'Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia' (Yellow Jersey)
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