Reviewed here: The Bookie’s Runner, The Five Sons of Charlie Gisby, Ping Time and other Tales
Other ebooks by Brendan: The Island of Whispers, The Five Sons of Charlie Gisby, The Preservation of the Olive Branch,Ferry Tales, Lost Between the Bridges, The Hitchhiker, Ping Time &Other Tales of Revenge,Thomson’s Lucky Star, Venetian Lives
“Revisiting the past in order to learn its lessons is a familiar theme. In this book, the author’s explicit about his aim. He’s recreating a single bus ride to his school after the holidays, the ride which will take him to his first day in fourth year. And there, he’ll have to smile and laugh and be `normal’ even though his dad has just died. In the course of the ride, he recalls memories and puts them together to capture his dad’s essence, to try to find out who he was and, in the process, make the same discovery about himself.
So we have a mature writer `regressing’ to his early teenage self, who becomes the narrator. The bus journey is lived in the present tense, with him dredging up and mixing the memories to give the life he’s lived thus far a shape, putting people in their places in the story, ascribing blame, seeing patterns. Above all, he’s resurrecting his dad and at the same time forcing himself, more or less successfully, not to cry.
The Bookie’s Runner is a short book but it has a compelling density that anchors it in those seemingly insignificant little details of which reality is made. Most of the memories about his dad begin with a gesture, a few words spoken, a look. Each then opens out into an episode which encapsulates one or more of the characteristics which define the man for him. The time and the setting are carefully recreated, but without artifice, and the reader’s drawn into the narrative by the occasional image that’s recalled then shaken off without being explained for fear that it’ll make the tears start flowing. There’s the sight of his dad `sliding down the living room door and dissolving into tears’ or splashing in the sea wearing blue knickers or lying grey-faced in the hospital bed. They’re all explained in the course of the narrative but, when they’re first mentioned, they simply intrigue, tease and draw you onwards.
Then there are the strangely vituperative moments when he rails against his mother for borrowing more and more to keep up appearances. `Sure, mum, we had an immaculate house and proper school uniforms and nice clothes to wear in the chapel on Sunday but didn’t you realise that we couldn’t afford those things? Didn’t it occur to you that we didn’t really need them? Didn’t it dawn on you that the clothes and the furniture and carpets were all bought on tick and would have to be paid for one day?’ And there’s also `the unspoken business of mum carrying on with other men’. It underlines an irony the author noted earlier when he wrote that his parents’ marriage was `a match made in heaven. Theirs will be a fairy-tale marriage. They’ll produce beautiful children and live happily ever after. Aye, if only…’
And yet, if this is giving the impression that this is yet another `misery memoir’, that’s false. Because there’s life here, and laughs. OK, working class life for a couple with six kids to raise was hard, but there’s a strength in their community that isn’t found so easily in our more sheltered society. And, despite seeing how badly his dad was treated, how people, including his wife, took advantage of his gentleness, his trust, the man’s personality is strong and he found pleasures in his life. This was the meek, gentle man who, when bullied by a Petty Officer, poured a pot of soup over him.
As the bus nears the narrator’s school, the tears come at last, provoked by incidents in his dad’s final days. It’s the book’s climax and it centres around his death and two specific events related to it which seem to sum up the man. I don’t intend this to be a spoiler so one of them you’ll have to read for yourself. The narrator tells us he wept `Tears devoid of bitterness. Tears of sorrow. The sorrow not for me, but for the man who had never won; the man who was destined to lose. They robbed him before he died, and they robbed him after he died.’
But then, as this `loser’ is carried to the cemetery for burial, `suddenly they’re there: hundreds upon hundreds of mourners, lining both sides of the road, cramming the little lane that leads up to the cemetery gates, filling the cemetery itself. It’s as if the whole town has come to say goodbye to dad. It’s a measure of the love that people have for him – for their Derry McKay, for a son of the Ferry.
And there’s another way the father has quietly won the battle, too. The narrator’s final claim is that he’s learned from his father’s story that `I’ll be happy to forego the multitude at my graveside and my heavenly reward in order to live a better life than yours […] I won’t ever be gentle and trusting. I’ve learned from your errors.’ And yet the narrative is threaded through with tenderness, empathy, an affective sensitivity and that tendency to tears. They do all suggest that, after all, he’s his father’s son.” Reviewed by Bill Kirton
It’s not that I doubted the reviews. People whose opinion I respect have raved about this book. It’s not that I doubted Brendan’s talent – in one week I’ve consumed his short stories and family saga and been deeply moved by both.
It’s just that I couldn’t begin to imagine what one could write about such an ordinary dad. Brendan admits it, more than once ‘he was just my dad.’ Not a hero. Not unusual in any obvious way, ‘just my dad.’ So I found it hard to imagine what could make any book on the subject as good as people have said about it. That’s why I didn’t read it sooner. I should have. I started reading. I was choked by paragraph 2. Lesson 2 learned. It’s not just what he writes about it’s how he writes. It’s brave, honest, open, poignant and compelling
By Chapter Two I already knew I had to give this my full and undivided attention – and expect to cry. And I don’t do crying. Especially not about fathers. Having long since had mine abandon me, I tend not to think that fathers can be heroes.
But this is Brendan’s story, not mine. And a fifteen year old Brendan narrates his thoughts on the longest bus journey on earth – his first day back at High School after the death of his father. Each chapter is another story in the course of his dad’s life and it works so well because the adult holds himself in the background, while offering a subtle awareness of the depths beyond the boy’s immediate grief. He shares the reflexive stance of the reader and draws our empathy not only to the boy but to the man the boy became. It is man and boy telling the story.
The 15 year old feels raw emotion and unbridled hatred for a world which has treated his dad so unfairly and everyone (including himself) who has ever wronged his dad are the target of his furious grief. The tribute to the adult is that he has channelled this into a story which is a true tribute to his father.
F.Scott Fitzgerald said ‘write because you have something to say, not because you want to say something. Gisby wants to say something – boy and man – but he also HAS something to say. Something very important about human relationships and interaction. About truth and lies and trust and failure and love.
The boy experiences hopelessness and vows never to be as gentle and soft as his dad.
‘Who can you trust?’ is his dad’s poignant question and Gisby learns that you can’t trust anyone –except your dad. And without him, you have nothing left. I empathise with that feeling.
Structurally the work is understated but very clever. One doesn’t find out the full symbolic importance of the bus journey until well into the book and it hits one as yet another sideswipe. You want to go and wring the neck of the woman who cheats them at their gardening job. You want to hunt down the Bookie who cheats them (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler) It isn’t though because the episodes themselves, well written, remembered with the rawness of real emotion, are the stepping stones towards the greatness of the story which is a picture of how ‘ordinary’ people become what they are. The hopelessness. The fierce determination not to be cheated or lied to or tramped on are vivid and real. After finishing this I have the deepest respect for Brendan Gisby. I mourn for the boy he was and the dad he lost and I hope that he got the life he deserved. He certainly deserves the utmost respect for being able to tell this story with the power of pain and vividness of emotion and yet all of that is controlled, constructed and managed with a level of reflective awareness that is little short of incredible. Reviewed by Cally Phillips
This is a very interesting ebook, both as a concept and in delivery. Digital publishing makes the possibility of publishing family history much more real. I’m sure the market could be flooded by weaker versions of this book. Many family stories might have no interest to those other than ‘family’ but it’s good to know that such stories can now be told and that people who want to write and read such stories don’t have to expend a lot of money or worry about ‘the market’ they can just get on an do them. While I think The Five Sons of Charlie Gisby is a forerunner to what may become a very overcrowded ‘genre’ I think it will still hold up when there are many others to choose from. Why? Because the story is interesting and the way it’s told equally so. Each son (and his family) is given his own space and the whole book is peppered through with primary source material which contextualises and places the men and women in their time. And the book is complete with photographs, which while small on my ereader, would I am sure enhance reading on a tablet or iPad. So there’s a futureproofing of the ebook as well! A vision of what ebooks can and may offer in the future.
Of course it’s frustrating that ‘whole’ stories cannot be told. We get a snapshot of each person in the family, some with more detail than others, but this in and of itself is interesting. One feels privileged to have been let into a family’s private lives, with no skeletons left in their closets. There is more depth than one might think possible for ‘ordinary’ people and the initial research by Phil Gisby has yielded information that I feel is a true tribute to his forebears (even the ‘dodgy’ stuff). I particularly loved the descriptions of the drunken wife, the coyness with which it was reported in its time was both entertaining and reminded one of the changes in reporting style over the years. How such a woman would fare facing today’s media reportage gave me pause for thought. The whole family ‘saga’ was built and knitted together by Brendan Gisby with his usual humour and panache. And there’s an incredible diversity of life experience portrayed in this family ‘tree.’ You can’t read such a thing without thinking about your own family history and wondering how they would stack up if you did the research. Reviewed by Cally Phillips
Mental note to self. Do not piss off Brendan Gibsy. He’ll enact his revenge on you by putting you into a short story! Be warned. And be very afraid. The author tells us at the beginning that these stories are his ‘sweet revenge’ and to be honest, the nasties in his stories deserve a lot more than being written about!
Brendan Gisby should be well known as Mr McStoryteller. He runs a really innovative and engaging website where writers of Scottish origin can publish their work online (and many then go on to epublish their own collections) with an enthusiasm and committment which does him great credit. So I was more than interested to read some of Brendan’s own short stories. The collection, tied together by its motive of revenge, does not disappoint. Here are ten stories ‘populated by people who have wronged the author at some point in his life.’ My stand out favourite was ‘When you Stop Believing’ but there is plenty of diversity from the grossness of finding out what causes the ‘ping’ in ping time to the couthiness of ‘The Business’ and the intensity of ‘Regrets.’ The stories are much more than a venting of spleen. They are funny, sad, violent, shocking and poignant. They present a view of the ‘Ferry’ which is not exactly complimentary but then they remind us that having a great view of an ‘iconic’ part of the country is not in and of itself a guarantee of an idyllic life! The role of pubs is central to the ‘trouble’ but all small town horrors lurk in these stories – as well as the impact of individuals bent on ‘corporate’ greed be they line managers or club owners. It’s a well balanced and very provocative read. Reviewed by Cally Phillips
Brendan Gisby is better known to us as ‘Mr McStoryteller’ and he is the Mastermind behind the Short Story slot at 11.15 every morning. He also appears in the festival in a special Mr McStoryteller feature (Aug 23) and in Beyond Fiction (Aug 24)