A proletarian novel
The Heart On It
By Barry Hines
Michael Joseph 1994, 280 pp., $29.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
The proletarian novel lives on. Barry Hines, the novelist from a Yorkshire mining village, takes us to the coal pit in England again in his latest novel, where social and personal responsibility are the seams he opens up for exploration.
Karl Rickards returns to Yorkshire after his father, Harry, suffers a stroke. Harry was a union militant, "brilliant" during the 1984-85 miners' strike, and a life-long member of the Communist Party during and after its pro-Moscow days (he named his goldfish Kruschev and Bulganin, his dog Fidel and his sons Karl and Joe).
Karl, however, was not impressed by any of this. He fled his family to gain independence, changed his name to Cal, and lives in France where he writes socially innocuous TV scripts (Agatha Christie, Miami Vice) at $10,000 per page. He was verbally abused by his father ("unprincipled selfish bourgeois opportunist bastard" was a favourite) for letting his class down.
Cal's resentment towards his father, however, is challenged by a mounting pride and respect as he investigates the arrest of his father and the terror tactics of the police in the village during the big strike. His mother is also seen in a new light — as the prime mover behind the women's campaign group in the village during the strike.
"When are you going to write something that matters?" asks his father on Cal's return. The novel traces Cal's struggle with this question in the light of the rediscovery of his class origins. Along the way to social responsibility, Cal also has to come to terms with his sexual ethics and personal responsibility towards the woman and child he left behind when he shot through to France. The novel features a lengthy battle between Cal's hair-trigger erections and his treating of women as equals.
The novel, however, never quite achieves the sustained depth of psychological insight or literary flair to mark it as a great proletarian or social realist novel. It is artistically lazy in places, seemingly written with an eye for the TV adaptation.
There are, however, many redeeming features and it compares more than favourably with most contemporary novels with their remorselessly apolitical shrunken universe of the classless individual. Hines reminds us that work, capitalism and trade unions have as much a role in the literary world as they do in the real one.