Book Review: Paradise Road
Paradise Road by Stephen O’Donnell
Published by Ringwood Publishing
In the recently released Issue 16 of The Blizzard, Stephen O’Donnell and Lee McGowan team up to ponder the somewhat unimpressive history of football fiction. It’s a subject dear to O’Donnell’s heart as the author of two novels on the topic while the discussion once again emphasizes soccer’s inability to match sports such as baseball and cricket in generating literary highpoints.
O’Donnell’s own Scotball will be reviewed in these pages in the coming days but his previous Paradise Road certainly stands comparison to the best that the genre has had to offer. That Blizzard article does stress some of the writer’s main influences with the nineties hoolie porn of John King an obvious touchstone. King’s The Football Factory was subsequently converted into an execrable film starring a burberry clad Danny Dyer but on the page, at least, its narrative was compelling enough, albeit not sufficiently so to entice this reader into delving into the follow up, Headhunters.
Along with a strong sense of nostalgia, one shtick O’Donnell borrows from King is to insert the odd chapter that focuses on a character seemingly tangential to the main narrative and it’s a device that works very well indeed – one suspects that some of these personages will play a more significant role in later novels. This is a favourite trope of Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh of course and the spectre of that particular writer looms large over O’Donnell’s novel.
O’Donnell’s obvious debt to Welsh is both a strength and a weakness. The latter has only explore football in patches – chiefly in one of his most experimental novels, Marabou Stork Nightmares but also in the chapter he contributed to The Children of Albion Rovers collection. Those mentions largely revolved around Hibernian’s ‘casual’ culture and while hooliganism does rear its head in Paradise Road, O’Donnell’s leading men are altogether more benign – there are very few mentions of Class A drugs, HIV does not rear its head and, barring an amusing incident where a kid trails dog’s jobbie through this mother’s house, less of a scatological humour.
The argot is certainly Welshian – and once again hugely satisfying in the way it draws out infectious Scottish humour – even if the setting this time is Glasgow rather than Edinburgh. The novel’s main voice is Kevin McGarry, who failed to make the grade as a young footballer with Airdrie, eventually becoming a joiner and spending most of his spare cash on going to see Glasgow Celtic or, depending on the fortunes of the team and the growing corporatisation of the game, following its fortunes from afar while exploring the club’s nightspots.
McGarry’s is an intelligent voice. His pals may be relatively ureconstructed but he is always able to put things in perspective and his increasing attraction to the city’s more gentrified quarters and eventual escape to a new life in Prague illustrate a man keen to make his way in the world.
Large sections see the narrator reflect on Glaswegian football history and the novel is especially strong on sectarianism. Rangers fans won’t like it but for the most part, it’s a relatively even handed view even if the problem is charted back to as recently as the 1920s and the pernicious influence of the Church of Scotland and wider establishment. A superbly realised early chapter that takes place at an Auld Firm game is by turns compelling and horrifying as chants are laid out in full while, given that the novel is set in the 1990s, it was good to be reminded of a real powder keg era in Scots’ football history – Gazza, Di Canio and the late Tommy Burns are among those involved.
The book is brought to us by a small Glasgow based publisher, Ringwood and it’s heartening to see that it was reprinted in 2015 as it certainly deserves a wider audience. It’s inescapable to admit that O’Donnell has emerged from Irvine Welsh’s shadow so in terms of true originality across the whole literary landscape, it would be difficult to make a case for the book – but as a novel about football, it brings something very new indeed to the table. Aside from David Peace’s The Damned United and Red or Dead, few have managed this feat so skilfully.