David Peace: The Damned United

Peace, David, The Damned United, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-24955-8

As a reader of American novels, you’ll likely have read at least one excellent novel about baseball or American football by one of America’s best novelists. Among the excellent novelists who have written a novel about Baseball or wherein baseball is featured prominently are Philip Roth (The Great American Novel), Don DeLillo (Underworld), Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.), Bernard Malamud (The Natural) and Michael Chabon (Summerland). American football plays a role in novels by fine writers like Don DeLillo (End Zone) and Howard Nemerov (The Homecoming Game); not to mention countless excellent novels making heavy use of sports culture in some way, like Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes or Richard Ford’s Sportswriter. Soccer, or as we Europeans call it: football, has not had the fortune of inspiring such extraordinary art. To be honest, I would be hard pressed to remember any novel of note or even a truly excellent work of journalism. The best, and most famous, book that football culture has produced, is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Hornby’s memoirs of being an Arsenal supporter. The quality and reflective powers of Fever Pitch are well summarized by the way its author describes becoming a football fan, telling us he “fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” So, no, this is not a good book. It does work well for readers who are football fans themselves, I suppose, at least it worked well for me, because it vividly evokes being young, male, and enamored with football. If I hadn’t fallen into all three categories when I read it as an impressionable teenager, I doubt I would have liked it as much. It is a sad state of affairs that until David Peace’s novel The Damned United was published in 2006, Hornby’s sentimental piffle was the best literary achievement to have come out of football culture. I suspect that many of the accolades heaped on Peace’s book are due to a public starved for some decent literature about football to emerge.

Well, there’s no denying the fact: The Damned United is a reasonably good book. Nothing more, but also nothing less. There is much in it that can annoy readers, but David Peace, judging from this book, is a writer with passion and an excellent ear for the rhythms of other people’s passion. His book looks into the life of a football legend, and paints him as an angry, fearful, impassioned football professional who falls prey to his oversized personality, not able to restrain himself, not able to control his impulses, his desire to be loved and admired, and his hatred of those who would oppose him and the novel traces his downfall in minute detail. Peace’s nonfiction novel could well be called a tragedy in the sense that we are made to witness the demise of a man, and we understand what his harmatia, his character defect is, which leads to the inevitable end. The football legend in question is Brian Clough, and the novel tells us about his ill-fated stint managing Leeds United in 1974, starting with his first day at that “hateful, hateful place; spiteful, spiteful place”. This quote, by the way, is from that first day, it demonstrates Clough’s enmity towards his new team. He doesn’t welcome his new job, much as his new team doesn’t welcome him. From the first day, Clough, and Leeds United, are at odds. Peace’s book has 44 chapters, one for every day that Clough is employed by Leeds United, and the chapters are all narrated by Clough, and written in present tense. Peace emphasizes the dramatic nature of Clough’s soliloquies in multiple ways: some quotes, some intense thoughts and comments are written in italics, but Peace is also a fan of line breaks after a particularly expressive thought, and quite a few sections end on short, dramatic sentences. Not all the sections are about Clough’s time at Leeds, however. About half the sections are about Clough’s career up to his Leeds engagement. It starts with Clough’s last day as an active footballer, brought low by a horrific injury in the winter of 1962 and traces his career from his first assignment as manager of Hartlepools United, a small fourth division club, to his successful years of managing Derby County and finally accepting the appointment at Leeds United.

The italics in the sections dealing with Clough’s past have a several effects, the most important of which is the most simple one: they provide a stark visual contrast to the Leeds narrative, which allows Peace to treat both narratives the same way. Both narratives are written in the present tense, both make use of the same dramatic voice with short, self-obsessed sentences showing us the inside of Clough’s strangely wired mind. And while they at first seem to be contrasting stories, one the story of a doomed assignment to an unpleasant team, and the other the story of the meteoric rise of a young football manager, as the novel progresses, we are more and more treated to two stories of certain doom, as Clough fights with players, administrative staff and the press both in his career with Derby County and his time with Leeds United, and are made to understand what it is that connects both these stories: Brian Clough’s mind. Although his novel is about a football manager, Peace barely gives us details of games or managing strategies. Instead we are hooked up to his protagonist’s strange mind from the very first line, and are never allowed to leave. Like a maelstrom, Peace’s prose, simple, repetitive, expressive, pushes us through 44 days in the life of a strangely damaged, but also greatly talented man, and barely gives us time to breathe. A sign of his accomplishment is the fact that the book reads like a thriller although we all know the historical facts about Clough’s career. Brian Clough’s fear of failure so dominates his every thought that we start to expect him to fail. Even if we didn’t know the history of what happened at Derby County and Leeds United, Peace would manage to make us expect the worst. Peace traps us in the obsessed mind of a great football manager, thoroughly gripping us in the process.

Well, at least I was gripped. Like Fever Pitch many years ago, there’s a good chance that this book appealed to me because I am a fan of the sport, and am acquainted with its history and with the weight and importance of various events happening in it. You don’t have to be a baseball fan (I’m not) to appreciate the excellency of Malamud’s or DeLillo’s novels, but I’m not sure the same is true for The Damned United. This is one of the drawbacks of Peace’s reduced prose, his utter lack of context or framing devices that would help our understanding. The tragedy of Clough’s obsessions is obvious to any reader, but the book is too long and too detailed to maintain the attention of readers not interested in the sport. What’s more, it’s incredibly repetitive. I’ve said it before but it’s really one of the cornerstone’s of Peace’s prose in this book: it seems as if he built the book from a small assortment of pieces, arranging and re-arranging them every time Clough runs into another wall. Even in his triumphs, Clough is never just happy, he’s spitefully triumphant, a slave to his hate and demons in his best as well as in his worst moments. There is a strange power to the repetitiousness. The writing, both the phrases used, and the overuse of dramatic line breaks, is very close to cliché sentimentalism, but the repetition elevates the prose to an extent. It’s like a strange, misanthropic chant in many ways. And it does something else: as we all know, football is a culture very devoted to masculinity and chauvinism, so much indeed that it has proved to be a hotbed of homophobia and racism. And in The Damned United, Brian Clough’s struggle with success and his own torments are consistently framed with issues of masculinity and power. As in the phrases used, Peace has a penchant for cliché here, as well.

Thus, we are repeatedly treated to Clough’s concept of managers being fathers or father figures to their players, and his arch nemesis, Don Revie, the Leeds United manager he’s succeeding at the beginning of the book (and who, it turns out, vociferously opposed Clough’s appointment) clearly fills an oedipal role for Clough. Trying to take over and win with Leeds is frequently described as destroying Don Revie or his legacy. But Peace, while certainly not a subtle writer, is less dull than this made it seem. He cleverly sees and describes the 1970s as a period of change both in football as well as in British society at large. Clough is a thorn in the side of the administrative boards of his clubs because he embraces TV and newspaper journalism. He is outspoken, nimble and surprisingly popular. Don Revie, by contrast, represents an older kind of thinking. In his time at Leeds, Peace stresses, Revie embraced a rough, foul-centered play, and time and again we hear about Revie’s reliance on superstition. As we read the book, we start to see through the screeds and rants, we see the pattern and see beyond the mundane business of managing a football team, and as we do so, Peace catches up with us and injects overt politics into the book, as Clough, temporarily out of a job, between his time at Derby and his stint at Leeds, supports a Labor candidate for parliament. He calls himself, standing in the rain, campaigning for his candidate, a “pied piper”. This is a significant term, because here, Peace ties together all the strands in his hand. Again, not in a subtle way, but vastly effective. The book starts with a lament on British politics, titled “The Argument”, cobbled together from various sources, quoting and paraphrasing an array of writers. There is a bathetic urgency to it, and the novel bears out this urgency. Clough may fail because his character is weak, but in his failures and successes, Peace mirrors developments in British public life.

Clough is not a likable everyman, he’s a hateful little man; it’s certainly true he’s driven, and as his years in Derby, and later years at Nottingham Forest show, a more than capable manager. But for us readers, we are left with someone whose main motivation isn’t ambition as much as a strange, twisting poison in his soul. For a novel with a strong moral bent to it, I find it to be morally ambiguous, but I don’t have an intimate enough knowledge of British politics of the 1970s and 1980s to really understand some of its argument. For all the obvious effects, and all the blatant drums and fanfares Peace employs, he ultimately relies on a sense of recognition in his readers, a recognition of a time and a place, and of a game that has few literary champions. Judging from this book, he’s a writer who demands a certain amount of patience from his readers, and quite a bit of collaboration. In a postscript to the book, Peace mentions that in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s election, arguably a low point in British politics, and Brian Clough’s greatest success as manager (he won the European cup with Nottingham Forest) coincided. For me as a reader, there are enough obscure spots and twists in David Peace’s tapestry to make the book an intriguing read, and I was convinced to see the muscular repetitiveness as a good thing, rather than focusing on the surfeit of banal phrases and dramatic posturing. There are a few more clever things Peace does (reader address is one of them, and the use of fact, fiction and research in his nonfiction novel is another) that I couldn’t work into this review, so there is certainly a lot to recommend the book. I’m not, however, sure, it’s enough. I liked it, is all I can say. And it’s very clearly the best novel on football I ever read, and quite possibly the best novel on football ever written. Which is a bit sad, if we’re honest.

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