Tuesday 20 March 2018

Don't look back in anger

Fiction: Hopdance, Stewart Parker, Edited by Marilynn Richtarik, The Lilliput Press, pbk, 166 pages, €16

Great loss: Stewart Parker died of cancer in 1988
Great loss: Stewart Parker died of cancer in 1988

Damian Corless

Late playwright's semi-autobiographical 'lost' novel is a surprisingly life-affirming read.

Stewart Parker was an extraordinary individual. He was also an extraordinary writer. Belfast-born into staunch Protestant stock, the distinguished playwright endured a life plagued by harrowing misfortune. He sadly didn’t live long enough to make light of his troubles through the rear-view mirror of old age — but he has left us a great book almost three decades after his death.    

The title is Hopdance. To people of a certain vintage, this might suggest a hophead fest of the 1930s, but no. This is darker, much darker, and funnier than you dare expert.

Parker’s compelling novel focuses on what happens when you learn you’re going to lose your left foot, and go through the horrors of it happening to you. The writer was still in his teens and the world wonderful and wide with adventure. And then that appealing vista was appallingly no more. This is unsparing stuff, but good, exploring Parker’s life before, during and after this grievous loss. Belfast has never been the happiest of settlements, and its rainy mood to a mood of being down but not quite out.

At the age of just 19, while a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, the budding youth was diagnosed with Ewing’s tumour, a severe form of bone cancer. The solution was brutal. At an age that he might have been a footballer approaching his best years, Stewart Parker had his left leg amputated. He struggled on. As Marilynn Richtarik, Parker's biographer and the editor of Hopdance, puts it:

“He remained in hospital for three months, then spent the rest of the summer convalescing at home before returning to university that autumn. Desiring fervently to appear merely inconvenienced by his loss, he threw himself back into his old activities with an intensity that left him little opportunity to reflect on it.

“For more than a decade after his ordeal, however, Parker lived with the uncomfortable knowledge that his cancer could recur. Only when this apprehension had begun to fade could he admit to himself what a heavy burden he had been carrying.”

The author of Hopdance reinvents his younger self as Tosh, who drifts through life before his cancer diagnosis. He is plagued by the double trouble, or the ‘cankers’ of a disturbing pain in the leg and a sense of isolation.

The loss of a limb propels him into a new relationship with the meaning of life.

This lone novel, mostly written in the early 1970s, is an early hint of the voice Parker would demonstrate in his plays, which are world-weary but funny.

Parker initially set out to be a poet, switched to novel writing for Hopdance (it took almost two decades to complete, and he regarded it as an exercise in working out his anger), and eventually turned to the stage, winning acclaim.

Parker was a big fan of James Joyce and sought to celebrate his home town of Belfast in the same manner as the author of Dubliners and Ulysses. The outcome is a love/hate vision of the place. He shared Joyce’s sense of humour, citing his “verbal felicity”, “positive vision of life,” and penchant for “using actual information about things in a way that transcends documentary and gives you an insight into people’s lives, relationships and history”.

All of these insights beam off the page from Hopdance.

The words he puts in the mouth of his alter-ego Tosh, (the very name, Tosh, conveys a sense of the air of gallows humour) are plaintive, moving and frequently very funny.

Looking back at a teenage life ripped away, the author reflects as he chokes on the sheer horror: “Tosh longed for his father to go. He could no longer sustain one other burden beside his own. At last the ward sister appeared, a dumpy honest lady in red uniform, and took my father away to sign a form. He sat on the edge of the bed to the right of the door, hands in his overcoat pocket, and watched the thin black shoe swinging on his left foot. Certainly he was being moved in some direction, but towards what destination? Too soon to think of an end, it had hardly started yet. He wondered if the groaning men were dying. Whatever that meant. His father reappeared with the sister to say a gruff, troubled goodbye.”

And if that all sounds just too grim, it’s not.

This book conveys a living sense of place and time and humanity. The best term to sum up Hopdance is life-affirming.

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