John King’s novel was first published in the UK twenty years ago. It has recently been reissued by PM Press in a handsome and suitably eye-catching edition for North American readers. Curious then that the title remains The Football Factory, because Americans think football is a game with helmets and and padding.
More curious to the North American reader will be the random acts of violence which do not involve loners with guns. The violence is very much of a European hue and it’s associated with Doc Martins, swastikas, and gangs of skinheads walking the streets in broad daylight armed with chains, bricks and knives. Welcome to the world of the football hooligan.
King’s novel is narrated by one. The protagonist, a Chelsea fan called Tom, lives for Saturday afternoon, when he gets the chance to kick someone’s head in. His other exploits include drinking enormous amounts of beer, doing a runner from restaurants, and having sex as mindlessly as he beats people up. He’s a psycho but far from the worst. Bob Dylan once wrote that you have to be honest to live outside the law, and the narrator has certain rules of behavior that he sticks to: he doesn’t approve of violence against women and children, and although he uses the n word frequently, he isn’t a racist.
As with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, with which The Football Factory shares a genre, the narrative voice is everything, because there’s no catharsis and not much story here. That voice is vivid and powerful. The novel captivates mainly through its linguistic vitality, no matter the ugliness of its message. The dialogue is suitably earthy, if sometimes unlikely, and the descriptions of violence are as clear and savage as a Sam Peckinpah film.
At various stages the narrator takes a detour and begins to sound like a reasonable human being. There are some sentimental chapters reminiscing about childhood, other chapters about secondary characters told from an omniscient point of view, and some pontificating about working class alienation. These are by far the weakest parts of the book because most of The Football Factory, like the best war novels, has a sense of danger, a sense of the other living a nasty, brutish life. As with Hemingway, the prose fizzes when King depicts action, and we know why. It’s because the character of Tom only comes to life when he’s faced with the prospect of a battering.
This is a furious, flawed, and riveting piece of fiction, well worth resuscitating for the grim beauty of its language and for its portrait of working class white males. Football hooliganism has declined over the last two decades, but the forces that underpinned it are still at large: inequality and anger at a broken social system that marginalizes the working class. No wonder King’s novel feels as relevant today as it did twenty years ago.