The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” (Jack Kerouac, On The Road)
It would have been Kerouac’s 100th birthday in March and so it seemed the right time to pick a fight with him about his manifesto. Since 1957 when he published the lines above lots of people have gone ‘yeah! Jack’ and punched the air and some have gone to find burn, burn, burning people of their own to hang with, or to write about. Some have even gone on to try and become those burning men and burning women themselves, have tried to become Roman candles, have tried to get through life without yawning or saying a commonplace thing.
And I know why. It’s a seductive compelling, propulsive piece of writing. It has an energetic life of its own. There’s a deep and joyous pulse going on there. I get it. I can see the appeal.
And yet, no. I am not one of those who fall in love with the Burning People Who Explode Like Spiders. I respect them. I like them (the esteemed Poetry Editor of this very magazine is one of those people) but I don’t agree with them. They are very much not the only ones for me. I find I can very easily swerve away from these people and their disturbing blue popping centerlights.
The truth is I find the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk and all that quite exhausting tbh. And demanding. So demanding. They are desirous of EVERYTHING AT THE SAME TIME?! Jeez. You wouldn’t want a kid like that at your five year old’s birthday party never mind in your life all the time.
Not only am I careful around these people in real life, I don’t even like them taking up all the airtime in books either.
My first novel TAG was the story of a dispirited English teacher who finds himself in charge of a seriously transgressive, fifteen year old girl. Mistyann Rutherford – a blend of many of the mad to live, mad to talk kids I’ve taught over the years – is definitely a fabulous roman candle of a kid. A wild-child. Mad, bad and very dangerous to teach. I love her but she’s not the hero of the book, that’s my world-weary cynical teacher, who swapped dreams of pop stardom to try and do something for the left behind and the forgotten in a nowhere town somewhere exceptionally unexceptional in England (Bedford if you must know).
My second book Life! Death! Prizes! has a protagonist, Billy Smith, who is losing the plot after the death of his mother in a bungled robbery. He’s nineteen and suddenly having to parent his six year old brother during his gap year, all the while haunted by the idea that his mother’s killer is out there watching him. Billy is mad with good reason. His soul burns, blue centerlight pops and fizzes and everything. He’s not the hero though, not really. Neither is his brother, Oscar (though lil O does seem to make readers go aww – which is gratifying). No, the heroes really are the sensible aunts, neighbours, friends and work colleagues who give advice, who generally seek to save Billy from burning up. The people around him who provide safety nets, who protect him from danger, who look out for him even as he rejects their help. Who make him cakes and casseroles. The heroes are all the decent minor characters working to stop Billy from doing the Exploding Spider thing.
It’s the same in Stronger Than Skin (man does a terrible thing in his youth, spends the next two decades worrying about it while living an exemplary life – but finds these things need dealing with eventually, you can’t hide forever) The hero is almost painfully sensible most of the time, distinctly unburny, despite all the pressure. And by the end there’s a lot of pressure, he could very easily be forgiven for going full roman candle.
And in We Don’t Die of Love (Very ordinary bloke is left by his wife of thirty years, his business goes down the toilet and mysterious gangster figures target him and his children). He’s also heroic to me, but only because he keeps on keeping on, just puts one foot in front of another, grits his teeth and does what he has to do to get by. Tries not to hurt people. Absolute hero, if you ask me and he is not only not mad to talk, he hardly talks at all. Instead he does a lot of thinking. Nothing more heroic than thinking.
‘But Steve,’ I hear you say. ‘We get it – you like the plodders and the beta males so why then is your new book Sell Us The Rope about a certain Joseph Stalin? This infamous killer, he’s pretty alpha isn’t he? He’s pretty much wanting everything at the same time is he not?’
And I say to you, maybe he is – in the end – but not in May 1907, not when he’s in London for the 5th Congress of the Communists. When he’s over here he’s 29, not the stolid killer of the future but instead he’s a new father, known as a grey man. In London he is watchful, cagey, almost silent. He finds himself nursing one of his colleagues, Mikhail Tskhakaya, when that colleague catches influenza. He strikes up a friendship with Arthur Bacon the too-sensitive son of the landlord at the future dictator’s lodging house. He even falls in love, but he can’t express it. And it’s this Stalin I was interested in not the mad for it, roman candle hearted murderer.
I think in all my books it’s the sad I’m interested in not the mad. The too sad to talk, too sad to be saved, desirous of nothing they haven’t earned. The ones that always yawn, that take refuge in the commonplace, that try not to burn, who hide their beauty rather than parade it. These are my people. Jack K may not like them, but I think they should be celebrated. Those are the ones for me.
About the Author
Stephen May lives in West Yorkshire has written six novels including Life! Death! Prizes! which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and The Guardian Not The Booker Prize. His most recent book is Sell Us The Rope which has been well reviewed everywhere and was The Bookseller Book of The Month for March.
He has also been longlisted for Wales Book of the Year and won the Media Wales Reader’s Prize for his first novel TAG.