Howler Book Club: Appreciating the unique style of Red or Dead

Some guiding words on how to get the most out of our inaugural Howler Book Club selection

At 720 pages, David Peace’s Red or Dead is a thick novel. It’s up there with other will-breakers like Dostoevsky’s Demons, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The kind of books people aspire to read, then slam the cover shut 50 pages in. But have no fear! Hopefully, I can help you see past Red or Dead’s more intimidating aspects here.

First, Read or Dead is not a suspenseful page-turner you’ve torn through at the beach in past summers. Instead, Red or Dead shares more in common with good ol’ literary modernism and especially Gertrude Stein — she of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Tender Buttons, and The Making of Americans fame. So far, Stein is the only antecedent I can think of who even remotely resembles what Peace is doing in his writing. A few hundred pages into Red or Dead, I find that my experience reading Stein years ago helps me immensely in enjoying and understanding Peace’s 700+ page behemoth.

As Dennie Wendt warned in his initial review of the novel, Red or Dead is not for everyone — perhaps only the “football religious” among us, trained by our love of the sport and our childhood experiences of sitting through services and droning readings of sacred scriptures. In our contemporary context of constant mobile device checking and social media distraction, Red or Dead can quickly become a brutal read. But it doesn’t have to be.

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Pro tip: instead of reading Red or Dead expecting a fast-paced “sports fiction” genre read, try reading it with the mindset you’re supposed to bring to the yoga studio, breathing exercises, or meditation. In other words, Red or Dead requires mindful attention. Set aside your device with its Siren apps. Red or Dead is worth it. Your attention will be rewarded with a majestic narrative that unspools at almost the intensely meaningful pace of life itself.

Just one page in, you’ll quickly realize that Red or Dead isn’t like any novel you’ve read before. Peace’s writing will feel like kids’ “Dick and Jane” stuff on poetic steroids. No joke.

First, Peace relies on simplicity both in terms of diction (word choice) and sentence structure. Peace’s diction is so simple my seven-year-old son could probably read Red or Dead. The novel’s language is shockingly ordinary. For example:

After the whistles, all of the whistles. Along the corridor, into the dressing room. Bill slammed the door, Bill locked the door. Bill turned to face the players of Liverpool Football Club. The tops of their heads, the fall of their shoulders. Their necks and their backs (Peace 150).

Or:

And in the rain, the players passed the ball. The players dribbled with the ball. The players headed the ball. The players chipped the ball. The players controlled the ball. The players tackled. And in the rain, Bill passed the ball … (126).

Or, again:

Bill nodded. Bill smiled. And then Bill said, I am very pleased and proud to have been chosen as manager of Liverpool Football Club. Liverpool is a club of great potential (12).

I chuckle thinking of the lexile level an algorithm would select for Red or Dead.

Peace’s sentences are basic: simple subjects, simple verbs, occasional modifiers, and even more occasional commas. Although unadorned, Peace’s simplicity allows him to create hypnotic cadences, like this example from the mouth of Mr. Bill Shankly himself:

Do you know how far it is, asked Bill Shankly. How far it is from Liverpool to Milan, lads? … Well, I’ll tell you, said Bill Shankly. I’ll tell you, lads. It’s eight hundred miles. As the crow flies. From Liverpool to Milan. And it’s eight hundred miles back again. As the crow flies. That’s one thousand, six hundred miles, lads. (121)

Simple language is malleable, especially for creating complex patterns and rhythms. I think this effect is one reason why Wendt calls the novel a long poem.

Peace’s sentences remind me very much of Gertrude Stein, who uses similarly simple diction throughout her oeuvre. For example, take the opening passage of Stein’s infamous story “Miss Furr and Miss Skene”:

Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice a voice quite worth cultivating. She did not mind working. She worked to cultivate her voice. She did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living. (Stein 563)

Or take a passage from Stein’s “Pablo Picasso”:

This one was one who was working. This one was one being one having something being coming out of him. This one was one going on having something come out of him. This one was one going on working. This one was one whom some were following. This one was one who was working. (334)

Like Peace, Stein’s diction is simple, yet when these “simple” words rub together in a sentence, the effect is maddeningly complex, almost magical. Simple diction certainly doesn’t mean simple subject matter, as in this opening to Stein’s essay “Composition as Explanation”:

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are looking (513).

In a passage like this, as she later goes on to explain just what literary modernism is, Stein showed me just what’s possible with simple words.

Something similar happens in Red or Dead, because Peace’s diction remains uncompromisingly “simple.” In Peace’s case, this simplicity, I’d argue, paradoxically makes the novel’s locales, events, and people ordinary, yet also more profound. Peace’s subject matter — football itself, Liverpool Football, Bill Shankly, famous Liverpool players, famous football matches—dwells in the larger-than-life realm of televised events and celebrities. However, partially through simple diction, Peace deconstructs mythic entities like “Liverpool Football Club” or “Bill Shankly.” Suddenly, these entities become, ironically, normal. Everyday language recasts the mythic in everyday light and everyday time — something captured best, perhaps, by the useful German word Alltag or alltäglich (something like “everyday life” or “everyday-ness”). Indeed, Alltag is a major theme in the novel, or, to put it another way, the warrant upon which the novel rests. No wonder Peace needs 700+ pages to tell Shankly and Liverpool’s story.

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Although football is described in simple and discrete terms like passes, runs, shots, dribbling, jogging, heading, tackling, more passes and more runs, the cumulative effects hundreds of pages later is that these simple terms pile atop each other, reaching the heights of greatness itself, as Shankly’s Liverpool is promoted, then wins trophies, summiting the football world. In this regard, Red or Dead is an elegant literary demonstration of the now hackneyed “10,000 Hour Rule” for developing expertise. I can’t think of a more effective way of conveying the ordinary experiences of professional athletes, repeating the same simple motions and patterns again and again and again and again, ascending the path to greatness.

Bill Shankly

Speaking of repetition, it is perhaps the novel’s most distinguishing feature. The book is littered with thousands of examples of names, phrases, and sentences being repeated. Peace repeats something to some extent on every paragraph on every page. For example, Peace repeats the sentence fragment “In the rain and the mud” 10 times in a single paragraph(!) recounting Liverpool’s 1964 Easter Sunday win at Leicester City (135–36). The effect is visceral, like cut editing in film. At other times, you’ll also see Peace repeating phrases like “In the night” hundreds of times, as a sentence fragment spliced between sentences.

I could go on with similar examples, so instead I’ll focus on some particular ways Peace uses repetition. One prominent type of repetition is the repeated use of proper names, whether it’s spelling out “Liverpool Football Club” a dozen times in a single paragraph, or repeating a character’s name in a parallel sentence structure throughout a paragraph:

Bill walked over to the table. Bill picked up the plates. Bill walked back to the sink. Bill put the plates in the sink. Bill walked back over to the kitchen table. Bill picked up the salt and pepper pots. Bill put them in the cupboard. Bill walked back over to the table. Bill took the cloth off the table. Bill walked over to the back door. Bill opened the back door. Bill stepped outside. Bill stood on the step. Bill shook the cloth. Bill stepped back into the kitchen. Bill closed the door …. (128)

You get the point. This hypnotic scene goes on for at least a page, as Shankly achieves catharsis from a losing streak through household chores. Repeating “Bill” continually keeps our protagonist dead center within the mind’s eye, as move-by-move Shankly lives through the scene.

Another example of name repetition occurs when Shankly and his assistant Bob Paisley scout their Euro Cup opponent, Anderlecht:

Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were concerned, Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were worried. Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley went to Brussels. Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley watched Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht play Standard Liège. Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley watched Royal Sporting Anderlecht murder Standard Liège. Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were not only worried. Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were frightened. Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were scared. (154)

This passage is poetic. Peace repeats the full names of Shankly and Paisley, transporting them as characters into the wider world of football, of Europe, or simply of people. In my mind, the full names widen the focus of the narrative’s lens, simultaneously shrinking Shankly and Paisley into their larger environs. Tellingly, Peace often uses this “full name” technique when describing Liverpool’s matchdays, naming each player with first and last name, as the individuals paradoxically shrink into their full Christian names, then the collective unit of a team, thus injecting life into the cliché that football is a team sport.

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Finally, my favorite example of repetition occurs in a particularly lyrical passage when Shankly trains in the Liverpool rain and mud with his boys. This scene is filled with joy. In this passage, Peace pull out all the stops, repeating names and sentences, layering the sentences upon each other in crescendoing patterns, and all the while keeping razor sharp upon the joyful man at work, Bill Shankly. I don’t have room to quote the whole passage, so a few lines must suffice:

Bill laughing. Bill joking. And in the rain, the players ran one last time around the training pitch. Bill laughing. Bill joking (127).

Over the three pages of this scene, Shankly’s character shimmers — flourishing in the serious play of an ordinary football training session.

Peace’s use of repetition slowly pulls complexity out of his characters, painstaking bit by painstaking bit. Again, reading Gertrude Stein prepared me for appreciating Peace. Stein, too, embeds complex repetition into her work, whether its whole sentences, phrases, or patterns. In many of her longer prose-based works, repetition is the defining trait. For example, this passage toward the end of “Cezanne” is typical:

In this way Cezanne nearly did in this way. Cezanne nearly did nearly did and nearly did. And was I surprised. Was I very surprised. Was I surprised. I was surprised … (Stein 329).

Or in “Picasso,” Stein repeats the phrase “This one was one who was” when describing the famous artist. Or, like Peace does in Red or Dead, Stein frequently reverts to repeating character’s full names, such as “Jeff Campbell” in Melanctha. Or take this nugget from “Composition as Explanation,” as Stein discusses the timing of art’s production:

The time of the composition is a natural thing and the time in the composition is a natural thing it is a natural thing and it is a contemporary thing.

The time of the composition is the time of the composition. It has been at times a present thing it has been at times a past thing it has been at times a future thing it has been at times an endeavor at parts or all of these things. (522)

Hey, at least Peace occasionally uses commas and crafts shorter sentences!

Anyhow, reading Stein taught me that effective repetition can disrupt normal reading and thinking patterns by stripping away commonplace associations that accrue around subject matter — such as conventional “pop” thinking about football, Liverpool Football, and Bill Shankly in the case of Red or Dead. What emerges instead is subject matter that’s been defamiliarized and made startlingly fresh. Stein’s famous dictum “a rose is a rose is a rose” captures this idea nicely, as each repetition moves readers one step closer to the original object itself and not the commonplace associations encrusting it.

In this sense, David Peace and Gertrude Stein are kindred spirits, ultimately sharing the same literary project of re-presenting the world to us. I know that my own appreciation of Peace’s Red or Dead depends on what I learned from Stein’s work years ago.

However, I also wonder if Peace’s use of repetition is more powerful than Stein’s, simply because a 700+ page novel about football — a sport with its thousands of repeated actions — is a perfect vehicle for meditating on the cyclical (or seasonal) passing of life and time itself, thanks to Peace’s disciplined use of repetition. You’ll even find this theme in the opening of the novel’s prologue:

Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. After the harvest, the failed harvest. Before the harvest, the next harvest. The man knocked on the door.

Presumably, this man is Shankly. And the harvest is a football season. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Year after year, we harvest our clubs’ seasons. And years from our lives. Peace haunts his novel with this rhythm.

More than any novel I’ve read so far, Red or Dead replicates something startlingly intimate about what it’s like to live within time. In this sense alone, the novel is a stunning achievement. To borrow from philosophy, Red or Dead is a phenomenological read, carving through our own experience of Experience itself.