Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

The Ragman’s Daughter

by Alan Sillitoe
Knopf, 190 pp., $3.95

The Magic Box,” which is the longest story in Alan Sillitoe’s new collection, is also the best. A working-class couple in a Midlands city fall into estrangement following the accidental death of their child. The husband, who was a radioman in the Army, buys a short-wave set with his share of some football winnings and spends much of his time in the dead boy’s room, listening to messages from ships at sea. His emphasized isolation drives him out of his mind for some months. While he is in the hospital, the wife, who has long been lonely, has an affair and becomes pregnant. When he returns, she announces it calmly. He tries to retreat again to the room and the radio. He cannot. He beats her. Then they cling together desperately.

The story is beautiful for several reasons. The attrition of the couple’s marriage is rendered surely but reticently. The effect of the child’s death, often too handy a commodity in fiction, is unflawed here, is used only residually, as a cold fact of their lives. The characters step forward by engagement in their activities and inactivities, not by being pushed. The story develops with inevitability yet without triteness. At the end there is a chord that makes the story close satisfactorily without stopping.

These virtues are named to imply converse defects in most of the other stories—in fact, much of the author’s previous writing. Even “The Magic Box” is not quite free of his principal insecurity: his style. It fluctuates from straight hard prose to Nottingham slang to the most literary effusions, often all on the same page. The objection is not academic; the change distracts from his intent because the speaker’s voice keeps cracking like an adolescent’s.

His second insecurity is in his use of pathos. Often he appeals for sympathy with music-hall blatancy. (On the very first page of the book: “For once that no-good God was on my side.”) Related to this is his display of chunks of misery as if his experience of them relieved him of the necessity to make art of them. And related to that are his often faulty attempts to make art of them. In this book he glibly constructs vouthful neuroses (thieving and arson) out of psychosocial factors, yet these disorders disappear at the author’s snap when he has no further need of them.

A third insecurity is his proletarian-revolutionary position. He writes to expose the plight of the poor, and there are flirtations with revolutionary ideas all through his books. For example, Liza Atkin, the heroine of “The Good Women” in this volume, is disappointed after the workers win a strike. “She thought that such a downing of tools as had taken place meant little because instead of coming back to work they should have stayed out solid and gone on from there.” (That is also a fair sample of Sillitoe’s prose. Bogger that bleddy gerund, duck.) But the …

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