Book Review: Red Or Dead, David Peace’s Bill Shankly epic

Red Or Dead Book Review (Faber and Faber), by Paul MorrisseyFollow on Twitter here

Pages, some 714 pages. Turning and turning the pages. All those pages, all those words. The words and the pages. Reading. Again. Turning. Again.

David Peace’s dramatic ‘factional’ account (part novella, part biographical) of Bill Shankly’s life and times, Red Or Dead is like no other football book you’ll ever read.

It’s been touted around as ‘long’, ‘long’ having a negative connotation when it comes to the literature. OK, as I’ve alluded to above, it ain’t a pop-up book. But you can’t take a book out of its context and dismiss it as long: it’s long because it needed to be long; Shankly didn’t spend a wet week at Anfield. Criticising it as long is like going to a Belgian short film festival and walking out because the films are too short.

The length is also owing to the repetitious style, which at first has you scanning frantically back a few lines to make sure you’re not cracking up, that you did just read that sentiment felt by Shankly, and it’s just being reiterated. You’re fine. It’s just being reiterated.

But that is the initial feeling – one of angst and fear, fear that you’ll never finish this book, fear that you’ll glean no joy from this solemn story.

But that’s before you’ve gotten to know Peace’s Bill Shankly, before you’ve developed a rapport with Bill Shankly, before you’ve gotten to know the most intimate thoughts of Bill Shankly (the style is infectious, I can’t help myself. It makes everything appear very epic. Epic.) Soon you’ll be interjecting for Bill Shankly, you’ll be taking the words out of Bill Shankly’s mouth. You’ll know what Bill Shankly has for breakfast (tea, slice of toast with honey).

And that’s a tribute to Peace’s dark and sinewy style; it sucks you in. The second person ‘Beckettian’ style of The Damned United achieved this much more fluidly and easily, but even if the Red Or Dead assimilation effect takes longer to reel you in, when it does it’s arguably more effective.

You feel the Anfield games and the Melwood sessions with a rare intensity, and as the story develops so does the dialogue: the exchanges between Bill Shankly and Keegan, Bill Shankly and Ron Yeats, Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley; and most of all Bill Shankly with himself on his quest for survival, his yearning to make the people happy through honesty and integrity; give you an insight into the mad and manic methods of the man.

The Bill Shankly mythology is surely embellished through some of the more unbelievable anecdotes, but who cares? It’s a dramatic story, it goes without saying word-for-word dialogue physically can’t be reproduced, and that a certain artistic license is involved. And some of them (one of which involves a pair of testicles and boot polish) are simply hilarious in their description and dark delivery.

Red Or Dead is not for Dan Brown populists; it’s a bit of work, just as Bill would have wanted. A bit of graft and slog, son. Because then everything is all the more rewarding, son.

A good book, a long book. A great book.