Classic Books: This Is How

‘Put every word on trial for its life,’ M J Hyland told me, in the Cornerhouse, shortly after taking up a lecturing job at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. Back then she had published two novels, How the Light Gets In followed by Carry Me Down, both precise and intense explorations of young people trying to find their way in the world. Her latest and best book, This is How, is written in that same unique Hyland style. There’s a single voice. The prose is stripped down to its essentials. Here’s a typical couple of paras:

When the pregnant woman leaves, I buy two ham and salad sandwiches with extra beetroot and two sponge cakes and two vanilla slices and a big bottle of lemonade. I also get lots of napkins. Women always like to have napkins.

I get in the car, take the top off, put the radio on. I find a station playing jazz. If there’s not much chat when she first gets in the car, at least there’ll not be silence.

All the bells, whistles, crutches and affectations that make up your average sentence of contemporary English prose have simply been thrown out of the window. Notice, though, that nothing essential has been lost. In fact it shines all the more because there’s nothing extraneous in the way. By this point in the novel, Patrick Oxtoby, the book’s narrator, has arranged a day out with a local woman who waits tables at a cafe. In these clear, declarative sentences you get anticipation, terror, hope of love, life – and that intensity resonates throughout the narrative. This is a novel with a heartbeat. When the pretensions and delusions that creep into fiction writing have been hurled over the side, we hear that heartbeat so much clearer. The reading experience is captured in the book’s most memorable phrase: ‘Every movement outside sets my heart thumping with blasts of hope and fear.’

‘When I came home from university,’ Patrick tells us, ‘my father told me he didn’t understand me, told me that my brother had a knack for happiness and he asked me why I didn’t.’ This is Patrick Oxtoby summed up in a sentence. In his early twenties with an abandoned engagement and undergraduate degree behind him, Patrick has moved to a coastal town to take a job as a mechanic. Repairing cars is his talent and his passion. Patrick boasts that clients will drive for fifty miles to have their cars worked on by him. There’s a gorgeous passage from a childhood flashback, where Patrick has been fixing a bike at his grandmother’s house:

‘When I was doing it,’ I said, ‘the time flew like magic, like the world didn’t exist. I thought I’d only spent an hour doing the fixing, when it turned out it was the whole afternoon. And when I was doing it, I didn’t have any worries about school or anything. And the pains were gone.’

She didn’t say anything, just opened her arms and gave me a good strong look and waited for me to embrace her, and when she was holding me she said, ‘Dear Patrick, you’ve found the thing you love to do.’

Patrick is good at some things – he thrashes other regulars at pool in the local pubs, he has a strange, damaged kind of charm that makes the waitress Georgia accept a date with him, on the basis of little more than a nodding acquaintance in the cafe where she works. It’s the rest of life itself he can’t handle. Basic interactions with others are a minefield. He’s constantly tense, defensive, inscrutable, and protective of his space. In an interview with Vulpes Libres, Hyland expanded on this: ‘What he suffers from is an escalating and cumulative sense of disorientation, a feeling of being left out, and a frustration both physical and emotional.’

Much of that disorientation centres around his relationship with Ian Welkin, a housemate at the boarder where Patrick stays. In her review of the book, Justine Jordan points out that Welkin is everything Patrick is not: ‘[a] teasing, provocative presence, given to garish displays of sexual prowess and unnerving emotional intimacy’. Welkin is an upper middle class Oxbridge graduate whereas Patrick always comes off as a country boy – little narrative things, ‘I’ll not’ for ‘I won’t’ give the impression of a rural practicality that loses its orientation outside the home village. Welkin’s playful irreverence jars and unsettles Patrick, he can’t deal with that affectionate bantering condescension with which almost all public schoolboys treat people who didn’t go to public school. After a night drinking with his housemate, Patrick begins to suspect that Welkin has stolen the ball-peen hammer from Patrick’s toolbox. This is it for Patrick Oxtoby, who goes to Welkin’s bedroom with an adjustable wrench and smashes his head with it, killing him in his sleep.

Hyland:

The book (if nothing else) says something about the quotidian, the arbitrariness, and the banality of certain murders. A man might be called a murderer even if he’s murdered only once. He might end up paying with his life for a split-second action. I wanted to look at this awful and fantastic tragic paradox of the instantaneous nature of the act and its lifelong consequences.

When someone kills, in films and books, that’s generally the end of the character arc. They are arrested and never seen again. The obvious parallel is L’Étranger, but I’m also thinking of Ziggy from The Wire, shooting Double-G in an argument about stolen cars, then staggering out onto the street in tears, fumbling to light a cigarette as the sirens grow clearer and louder. Patrick’s crime is dispensed in a couple of pages. There is no drama to it. The morning after the crime, Patrick goes back to Welkin’s room and looks at the corpse:

His eyes are open and the room smells of shit and something’s changed. He’s not moving, but there’s something else, something that makes him seem small in the bed.

I’ve highlighted a couple of lines to show how Hyland evokes, in just a few words, the essential loss here, the difference between someone who is alive and someone who is not.

Patrick kills around a third of the way through the book. Quickly he’s arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison. Hyland brings the process alive: takes us through every step in Patrick’s journey from a free man to another impulse killer lost in the system.

There are metal seats along both sides and each seat is housed inside a narrow cubicle, fenced on either side by metal partitions. There’s no wall at the front of the cubicles. The men opposite can see each other, but it’s not possible to see the man sitting next to you.

We go through two sets of gates and, at the second gate, a prisoner turns round.

‘Hey, new boy!’ he shouts. ‘Did your nut over a clock!’

I clamp my teeth, square my jaw, give a nod I hope looks tough and follow the line through two sets of gates and then wait outside the mess hall while the men from the blocks above cross the bridges and come down on the spiral metal staircases.

Now it’s the other bloke’s turn for a beating and he knows it, just stands back and waits for the officers to pile on and restrain him and, when it looks like he’s going to get off lightly, a fourth officer comes, a tall meat-head from Pentonville, and this one beats him with a metal bar, three blows across the back, a couple more across his shoulders, the back of his legs, and there’s a new blow with the fall of every word: ‘Not. On. Sun. Day. You. Worth. Less. Cunt.’

It’s a world of terse regimentation, boredom and terror, a world that reflects Hyland’s stark narration and also Patrick’s mental world. Prisons are not good places. Terrible things happen in them. There is a horrendous scene where Patrick walks into his cell to find a couple of strange inmates, who threaten to rape and blind him, then knock him senseless. There are moments where he imagines he is about to be released, dreams of love and freedom. He’s Perry Smith waiting for the yellow bird to take him away.

Yet once inside, Patrick acclimatises to prison life very quickly. The first night is always the worst by all accounts, but Patrick sleeps fine. Hyland: ‘Patrick does a better job of things in prison, the very things that caused him to disintegrate in Part One, he manages better when his freedom’s taken away.’ He says:

Truth is, now that I’ve been inside a good while, I don’t always think about my release, and I don’t always want to get out.

I’m sometimes happier in here than I was out there. I’m under no pressure to be better in here and life’s shrinking to a size that suits me more.

There’s even a suggestion towards the end that Patrick is changing in prison, beginning to overcome the flaws that led him there. The book’s concluding scenes are defined by a warmth and physical intimacy of which the old Patrick would not have been capable.

Good writers do not diagnose their characters. There are plenty of things wrong with Patrick’s early life but they don’t necessarily make him a killer. Patrick displays symptoms of psychopathy. He has initial trouble taking responsibility for the crime. On his arrest, his biggest concern is the loss of his toolbox. There’s little active malignancy in him, just an indifference, coupled with a strange intensity of feeling and experiencing. He doesn’t really feel remorse. He has strong emotions but they are all related to his own well being. ‘I should say I’m sorry,’ he tells us, ‘that I’d give my own life to bring Welkin back, but I wouldn’t give up my life to bring Welkin back. I want my life more than I’ve ever wanted it.’ Patrick has the psychopath’s selfishness without the talent for self-preservation.

He is also honest about his own shortcomings. He tells a psychiatrist that, when he is released, ‘I’ll probably make the same mistakes… Not exactly the same mistakes. I’ll make different ones.’ In a tragic and surreal interlude, he appeals to God to set him free:

But God’s got a quick answer ready. He reminds me that things are never as good as I think they’ll be and that I’m always disappointed and that when I’ve got something in my hands I know how to wreck it or not pay the proper attention to what it is I’ve been given.

He says, The best things in the life of Patrick Oxtoby were the things he remembered or the things he still waited for[.]

This is a tragedy… but isn’t it the human tragedy? Aren’t we all struggling forward or lost in the past, barely experiencing even the surface of lived time?

Hyland wanted to avoid the cliches of sadistic guards, and the system does not treat Patrick as evil. After he is sentenced Welkin’s parents come to see him. ‘It’s a very sad situation,’ Welkin’s father says, ‘You seem like a good boy.’ The world is about process, and not that much about morality. Great books have been written about the horrors of injustice. But justice too is often terrible, morality itself contains horror in its execution, and any sense of closure or triumph experienced by the families of the dead is always eclipsed by the intensity of the long walk up the steps of the gallows. The coldness of morality is something Truman Capote understood, and wrote about in his book In Cold Blood. Those who read Hyland’s novel will see it too.

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