This is the minimalist skeleton of Pat Barker’s superb little novel entitled, The Man Who Wasn’t There. I initially picked up this book simply because Barker seemed to have stolen my title for a novel, and I wanted to see if she had done the title justice. Perhaps I also vaguely recalled the enthusiastic recommendation of a few students and reader friends who were shocked that I had not yet read any of Barker’s work. You readers will already know of her work via her Regeneration trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road, the latter of which won the Booker prize.
She is a writer of incredible talent. Without once breaking out of character or showing herself as the omniscient author in the background, Barker manages, simply by telling the tale of this boy and his wonderfully imaginative life, to say so much about childhood, about the thin line between fantasy and reality, about the tough blue collar standards of what it is to be a man, the difficulty of being a low income single mother, and about the search for a parent never known. It is a sweet tale, but not sentimental. The men Colin and his young street-smart boyfriends look up to are themselves boys of seventeen and eighteen, often in trouble with the law, some having already been to prison, and destined to lives of semi-poverty and small-time crimes.
What caught me immediately about this story is the crystalline accuracy of Barker’s portrayal of how a young boy perceives the world. I was instantly reminded of my own boyhood in which many plays worked themselves out simultaneously as, from outward appearances, I simply lived out the life of a school-boy in a blue-collar neighborhood. Whether walking to school, walking the mile or so to the bakery where I got the pies I then sold door to door after school, walking to Sunday school or to a friend’s house, my inner life was rife with adventure. I rarely actually walked anywhere, preferring to lope or run outright, and needing to do so in order to function as the inner hero that I was. There were enemies lurking in every ally, spies looking through slits in curtains, while I was always on some dangerous mission with the salvation of many hinging on the success of my ventures. I recall the sense of offense, near outrage, at being called back from my important reverie life by some mundane errand, or worse, reminded to wash my hands before dinner, to go back outside to clean my muddy shoes. The adults around me so pitifully unaware of my dual life and so caught up in the ordinary, the banal.
Often when I read an author, I can see how he or she does what they do, even if I haven’t the talent to duplicate their efforts. But I cannot understand how Barker was able to envision just how much she could tell us readers simply by letting us in on the fantasy life of one small boy. How did she come up with the idea, and how can she speak through the eyes of a twelve year old boy so convincingly and with such veracity. I am still shocked that she brought it off, and that she was able to catch me so completely, absolutely absorbed for a few hours by this simple story.
And so throughout the book, we move from Colin to Gaston, from lonely, father-seeking, daydreaming and late-for-school Colin to Gaston the great. Just as I remember being amazed that so few adults saw me as who I really was, taken in by the ordinariness of my appearance and apparent life, Colin is half ashamed, half proud of the duplicity that has him scolded and reprimanded by dull school masters, coddled and sent to bed by a loving but harried and overworked mother, and an inner life so full of adventure, so important, so vital.
Colin plodded up the hill, half moons of sweat in the armpits of his grey shirt. In the distance, lampposts and parked cars shimmered in the heat. All around him was the smell of tar.
Gaston jerks himself awake. A sniper is crawling across Blenkinsop’s roof, but Gaston has seen him. He spins round, levels the gun, and fires.
The sniper—slow motion now—clutches his chest, buckles at the knee, crashes in an endlessly unfurling fountain of glass through the roof of Mr Blenkinsop’s greenhouse, where he lands face down, his fingers clutching the damp earth—and his chest squashing Mr Blenkinsop’s prize tomatoes.
Gaston blows nonchalantly across the smoking metal of his gun, and, with never a backward glance, strides up the garden path and into the house.
As he passes through the hall, Gaston taps the face of a brass barometer, as if to persuade it to change its mind. No use. The needle points, as it does unswervingly, in all weathers, to Rain. Madame Hennigan, the landlady, believes in being realistic, and no mere barometer is permitted to disagree.
Gaston clatters up the uncarpeted stairs to the top-floor flat.
Where he becomes, abruptly, Colin again.
Barker is the master of understatement. This little novel is only one hundred and fifty pages long, an easy afternoon read, and yet it covers so much. Simply by telling her story, the reader comes to see how and why tough, poor boys, lured by all the superfluous riches of market economies, turn away from the drudgery and meaningless occupations offered them to a life of petty crime, despite knowing on some level that they will likely end up in a shuffle between prison and street life. We see through Colin’s school experiences the cruelty of boys to one another, often enough abetted by equally cruel teachers. We see a boy embarrassed by his own sexual longings alternately attracted and repulsed by the crass sexuality of the older children and adults around him. And we see the deep longing for a father to admire, a man to teach him how to be a man, a lonely search for the man who wasn’t there.
This is a story of loneliness and longing and hope. If it is a sad story, it is also strangely uplifting. And it captures the wonderful imagination of childhood (so often crushed or forsaken in adulthood) in a manner as rare as it is wonderful. Give your self a treat; read this book.