First published in 1960, the debut of Storey (who would later win the Man Booker Prize for Saville, 1976) tells the gritty tale of Arthur Machin, a factory worker in northern England who becomes a star rugby player but can never quite get over a failed relationship with his landlady. The tone is set at the start, when Machin breaks six front teeth during a game (he goes back in), and is treated after hours by a resentful children’s dentist before making his way to an epic Christmas Eve bash at the home of his employer, the team’s patron. Despite his talent for running through, and over, opposition players, Machin is a man at odds with himself, resenting the crowds who cheer the pain he gives and takes, feeling like a “big ape,” and consoling himself that he only does it for the money. Storey knew what he was writing about: the son of a miner, he was also a talented painter who helped pay for art school by playing professional rugby.
This is undeniably a landmark work of
sports literature, and all literature.
Machin seeks solace with Valerie Hammond, a widow with two small children, in whose home he lodges. But Mrs. Hammond has walled herself off emotionally, and Machin’s attempts to break through that wall are emotionally and even physically violent. Very much of its time, yet still uncommonly powerful, This Sporting Life is a quintessential example of British “kitchen sink” (or domestic) realism, and Storey has been grouped with other “Angry Young Men” such as John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe, writers who focused on the interior lives and exterior circumstances of working-class people. (Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts won handfuls of award nominations for their lead performances in the 1963 film version.) While modern audiences may cringe at the dynamics of the relationship, this is undeniably a landmark work of sports literature, and all literature. Readers don’t need to know anything about rugby, and Storey handles a violent scrum as deftly as he does a scene of boardroom patronization or interior self-loathing. In the end, he indelibly captures a time, a place, and a big man’s doomed battle to have an emotional life as successful as his athletic exploits.
This review was first published August 31, 2015, on Booklist Online.