This sprawling, episodic, and amoral story scores easily and often against such obvious targets as property development, the sexual revolution, and the media. Some readers will also find here a silent but persistent dismantling of such cult novels of North of England urban mores as John Braine’s ROOM AT THE TOP (1957). But the farcical moments and satirical asides of THE ELEPHANT are both entailed and offset by material of a more sober and more painful nature.
This material, the core of the novel, is the relationship between the protagonist, Headingley Hamer, and his profligate father, Jack. Jack’s escapades as a funeral director, car dealer, and womanizer make him a larger-than-life character, so much so that he has three incarnations in the course of the novel’s roughly thirty-year span. And if he is an impossible parent, he is also inescapable. Much of Headingley’s behavior is provoked and overshadowed by his father’s. Richard Rayner is careful, however, to underplay the potentially sentimental and melodramatic content of his story. Instead, with most of the narrative limited to Headingley’s boyhood and youth, drama is supplanted by texture. There is an undertow of plot, but its influence is not very palpable, being muffled by layers of coincidence, random events, introspection, and self-conscious remarks to the reader. Nevertheless, Richard Rayner’s offbeat combination of pain and punchlines does make THE ELEPHANT a winning resemblance to its zoological namesake, monstrous yet natural, excessive though deft, somewhat preposterous but utterly recognizable.