THE PRISON HOUSE - Review by Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
"Caged Yobs Star In Footie Movie", ran a recent Sun headline. It gave another prod to the moral panic that surrounds today's release of The Football Factory, Nick Love's incendiary film about hooliganism, class, masculinity - and Chelsea. The movie (with a couple of convicted soccer warriors in its cast) derives from the first of John King's trilogy of novels about the whys - and the hows - of modern English machismo. Headhunters and England Away followed The Football Factory, which has sold 200,000 copies.
Given those themes, and statistics, readers unfamiliar with King might expect a shelf of gory potboilers in the same vein as Richard Allen, whose cheerfully trashy subcultural yarns arouse fond memories in Mockney rebels of a certain age. That could hardly be further from the truth. King is no prince of pulp but an adventurous avant-garde novelist, firmly in the tradition of what might be called Gutter Modernism. This line of hard-core, low-life experimentalists runs in a blood-soaked and drug-fuelled zigzag from Burroughs and Genet to Irvine Welsh. (King, like Welsh, first emerged from the Rebel Inc stable.)
In their work, extreme situations - addiction, confinement, psychosis - mix with derangements of language and perception to mount a critique of dominant values from the despised fringes of society, where outcasts and outlaws gather. That, at least, is how the theory goes. But how many post-movie purchasers of The Football Factory will graduate to the premier league of transgressive texts, such as Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers?
John King publishes his sixth novel this week. The Prison House (Cape, £10.99) retreats from the gentler suburban settings of his previous book, White Trash, to deliver a textbook exercise in Gutter Modernism. A feckless drifter called Jimmy, traumatised by the childhood tragedy we slowly uncover, has earned a two-year stretch in a brutal southern-European prison, the "Seven Towers". In these Mediterranean circles of hell, Jimmy encounters a scary cast of sadists and victims, of dreamers and schemers. His pilgrim's progress through this "longest night of the human soul" - from a "soft" block to a berth with hard cases, from self-delusion to self-awareness - sticks closely to the templates of Prison Lit.
Two qualities, however, raise King's game and reveal a special talent. First, the sheer virtuosity of his language, which overflows with a richness of invention that propels the reader through even the most gruelling ordeals. Jimmy's mental world explodes in monologues, fantasies, visions and flashbacks. Our anti-hero acquires two daydream alter egos - the Southern rock'n'roll wanderer "Jimmy Rocker", and the India-trail hippie "Baba Jim" - whose exploits we share. Beautifully, and persuasively, King makes, not sex, but vast and delicious meals govern his convict's fantasy life.
Second, the all-too-vivid humiliations and horrors of the Seven Towers hover on the brink of allegory. Jimmy appears as always and already imprisoned - by the miseries of his hidden past, by his self-destructive code of masculinity, by a deep fear of death, that "bone-crushing dread". In this literary jail, the ghost of Kafka shares a cell with the shade of Burroughs. An epigraph quotes Jack London on the infant "born with fear". Behind this passage lies Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" ode, where "Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing boy".
It's a long way from Platonic theories of birth as imprisonment to media frets about copycat thuggery. Welsh aside, few younger British writers can roam between squalor and sublimity as freely as King does. And, just to labour the obvious, he never once glorifies "mindless" group violence. He lays bare its tangled, toxic roots.