I wish I could recommend this book to my friends, but, as with Bernard Levin’s Enthusiasms, there is a technical obstacle: when I open it to find a few sentences to quote to show why it’s so wonderful, I end up reading the whole thing all over again and I never get round to telling them about it.
What is it about this simple boy-meets-girl story that is so enchanting? Well, it is a simple boy-meets-girl story, for a start, and one with a happy ending at that. There are no festering wounds from dark childhood traumas, no scenes of social deprivation or trenchant indictments of contemporary politics and culture. This is just a story where you want everyone to be happy and where you occasionally want to shout at the hero for being such an idiot; except that you know he knows he’s being an idiot because he tells you, and you know that in your shoes you’d be one too.
The big things about the book are its author and its leading characters. Stephen Foster can write, and he can write without drawing attention to the fact that he’s writing. When he finds a novel shorthand way of conveying something – such as the cliché-laden AmericoAdspeak of “theBoys”, the City lads our hero plays five-a-side football with – he doesn’t draw attention to it: it works because it’s there, and it’s there because it works. The dialogue is exactly right, and so is the monologue, which has a relaxed but sinewy feel, with its parentheses and digressions adding thickness and depth without overloading the narrative.
Our hero, whom the girl calls Winger because that’s the position he plays (they meet when he is tackled by ApeBoy and BearBoy and gets catapulted onto the girls’ pitch just in time to collide with her), is self-aware without being self-conscious. He is intelligent and creative. He is fond of theBoys and the way they talk, but he finds their world of cars, office politics, and endless status, status, status utterly alien. Scarcely less alien are the well-meaning friends who invite him to dinner parties where the only thing that anyone knows about art is how much the expensive pieces cost. He is also very serious about the important things in life, as can be seen in what he tells us after he’s made Natalie laugh for the first time:
When it’s the first laugh you see from someone you already feel 110% passionate about, it comes like the ball hitting the back of the net in the Cup Final while the Rothko hangs on the wall behind you in your own front room while you eat a small zabaglione with a cherry on top while wearing the ultimately fitting pair of trousers – all at once.
As serious as an Italian, I thought; although the only Italian thing about Winger is the half-Italian stepfather taught him to make a mean zabaglione. But he has that characteristically Italian seriousness about everything that is worth being serious about, which Anglo-Saxon solemnity can only ape. He is serious about football (he can narrate every twist in one of Pelé’s great goals, just to illustrate a point he’s trying to explain), he is serious about food (and has his knives sharpened professionally), he is serious about art (he goes to the Whitechapel Art Gallery to see the art, not to impress himself or us), and he is…
…yes, he is serious about trousers. When he is worried about how the first date will turn out, his worries become incarnate as worries about trousers: which ones are 10mm too long or too short, which ones have pocket linings the wrong colour, which ones don’t fit very well across the bottom. And a second date is a completely different animal from a first date and it needs a radically different approach, which takes two hours of concentrated work. But this really is seriousness, not obsession: where a Nick Hornby character would think of his trousers as things-in-themselves, to be hung in colour sequence or with similar materials together or in the order he bought them, for Winger they are all part of making circumstances perfect for the date. As indeed they are: they end up at midnight on Natalie’s bed, being used as the squid-ink pasta in a conceptual art piece he makes for her to illustrate a point, the scallops being represented by her underwear and her flowery top and green socks making a convincing side salad.
I stood up on the bed, wobbling.
“It’s called, The Physical Impossibility of the Idea of Love in the Mind of Someone Who Isn’t in It.”
Always get your first use of the Love word in in a neutral(ish) way. Not that I’ve ever done it before. Mentioned Love first. Or even at all. It just seems safest. She tried looking at me hard then, but she was standing and wobbling too.
I was thinking: this isn’t what trousers are for. Trousers aren’t for this. Or are they? What’s going on?
Women often say that men are emotionally illiterate. We’re not. But we’re very vulnerable and we protect each other’s vulnerability, and for that reason we rarely communicate frontally. Strides a tremendous example, which women will deride but men will recognise. It is an episode covering 26 pages, which starts when Winger comes across MarkyBoy (another of theBoys who play football) crouched over the steering wheel of his big black beautiful BMW, crying, and lasts all afternoon, all evening, and through to an epic hangover the next morning. Never putting into words what is too painful to speak of, often ostensibly talking about laddish subjects like cars and football, by the end of it a step forward in understanding has been made, and advice and comfort have been given and received. There are times when even subtext is a bit too in-your-face, and only sub-subtext will do.
Nor has the plot been forgotten in a self-indulgent display: Winger has rung Natalie to say that he thinks he loves her, and rung again to say he really does, and she has accepted his invitation to come round to his place so he can make zabaglione for her. But… the zabaglione will curdle, and she’ll disappear and run away to Finland, and…
Really, you should read the book.