Hugely ambitious, a deliberate attempt to take on the mantle of D. H. Lawrence, David Storey’s somber third novel is highly schematic, too much of an illustration of its—or its hero’s—central thesis: “But just think what if this separate thing [the soul] were in one man, and the body, the acting part in another? What if these two qualities were typified ideally in two separate men? Then . . . just imagine the unholy encounter of two such people!” Though at times almost physically powerful, wonderfully observed in its social details, rich in visual imagery, and leavened by episodes of pure, grotesque black comedy, Radcliffe falters under the weight of so much significance and signification, teetering on the brink of melodrama.
The novel opens on a scene which will resonate throughout the novel: nine-year-old Leonard Radcliffe’s first encounter with Victor Tolson during his painful first day at the local council school. The boys’ eyes meet—Tolson’s liquid with a sense of betrayal—after Leonard has completed his humiliation at the hands of their teacher by answering effortlessly the questions that have stumped him. Thus, there is an element of threat in the friendship and protection which the huge, popular Tolson later extends to the pale misfit with a talent for drawing. The sense of betrayal resurfaces three years later, when Leonard wins a scholarship to the grammar school, and their paths diverge.
Leonard is by nature destined for a more graceful life than that bred in the council housing estate that sprawls around his family home, an island lost in a sea of red brick (an image for Leonard himself). This family home is also the Radcliffes’ ancestral home, and his father’s mission is to protect the Place from encroaching vulgarity. At the birth of his son, portentous noises are heard from deep within the decaying mansion—an episode which prepares for Leonard’s later vision of the house as “an extension of his own mind.” Leonard is from the first feeble and clumsy. Without the “compensation” of Tolson at grammar school, he withdraws into himself, his only real activity the production of the drawings he pins around his room. This isolated activity stops when Uncle Austen (who perhaps sees Leonard as an extension of himself) gets Leonard a job with Ewbank the contractor, and Leonard finds himself working with Tolson, now a muscular giant with a...
(The entire section is 985 words.)