By R J Askew
ST ALBANS, March 20 – I made a lot of notes as I read ‘Billy and the Devil.’ Reading over them, I see I wrote ‘BRILL’ next to a chapter title, ‘Drink a bottle of cheap champagne’, and then wrote, ‘Stella. Stella. Cake. Stella.’
The above-mentioned chapter is just sixteen lines long, comprising some ninety-three words. Billy is getting married, he says ‘I do’. But the only reference to his bride is, ‘Her not saying much.’ Twenty-three of the ninety-three-word-tumble are the names of alcoholic drinks – the real loves of Billy’s thunderstorm life.
‘Billy and the Devil’ by Dean Lilleyman is a masterly portrait of an ordinary person who recoils from being ordinary and whose family history dooms him to play the role of the tragic rebel who ‘doesn’t seem to be able to find in-between.’
Up to a point all is well. Billy is a joker, ‘the boy who danced against the grain’, a hero to his classmates. He’s quick-witted, he notices things, and he dares to do. Maybe there’s a Billy in every class of fifteen-year-olds. We love his rascally cheekiness. Yes, we know he’s wasting himself, but Billy is Billy. We love him.
But Billy’s a bit of mess beneath his crazy confidence. Three barley wines in a pint pot? Nut-aaah! Still, he’s a laugh and we love him. And of course he’s a hit with the ladies – his mother apart that is. ‘We’re worried about Billy’s drinking’ another kid’s parents tell her, quietly, trying to be helpful. But what can she do? Nothing.
They say alcoholism’s a disease. But a disease of what? The body or the soul? Which rots first? Why does Billy succumb to it, when those around him do not?
The writing in ‘Billy and the Devil’ is at times exquisitely poetic in the acuteness of its observation: a hedgehog’s eye ‘goes orangey-red as Chris turns it towards the headlights’. Sometimes it is savagely brutal. Ernie the pig-man removes the runt from a sow’s litter: ‘her lesser-made son is smashed against the wall, again, again’. I was often reminded of Graham Swift’s writing in his powerful novel, ‘Waterland’.
Yes, there is much rawness in Billy’s young eye. He watches two mongrels making out on the school playing field: ‘the male sits licking its genitals in the six-yard box.’ There is a desperate vigour about the life in him.
And a sadness. On looking at the footprints his wellies have made in the snow of his youth near Mansfield, in Yorkshire, he says it’s ‘funny seeing where you’ve been. I look at each footmark and try to remember being there and how I felt, but I can’t.’ In some ways, some of the chapters of ‘Billy and the Devil’ felt like footprints in the snows of my own youth, especially some of the references to music. And a reference to George Best – another thirsty man – was highly evocative of a certain time and lifestyle.
I’d best not give too much away. There are some eighty-five mostly shortish chapters to the story. When I first looked at the contents page, I thought it might be a collection of verse. The bite-size chapter move the read along smartly through the decades of Billy’s life, yet the story never feels rushed.
Oh and the wit. You will find great wit throughout the story. Sometimes it is just of the half-a-smile-I-know someone-just-like-that variety: Bruce the numpty with his ‘tee-shirt from a Def Leppard tour he never went to see’. The wit keeps pace with the story’s progression into ever darker places, becoming increasingly biting and then cruel. Billy mocks others mercilessly, such is his alienation from the ‘gadges’ but himself ends up as infinitely sadder than the ordinary people he despises. So the joke is on him perhaps. Except it isn’t that funny at all, especially for his wife and kids, or for him. Poor Billy seems scared, loveless, out of touch with all that is gentle. He relates more to Nature, especially birds, than people, who are ‘ugly and tell lies’.
Jameson and Guinness have him firmly in their embrace, fill the voids in his life literally and liberally.
As well as its poetic dabs, Billy and the Devil is also in part a play or even a TV script. It is certainly dramatic, a dramatic trek in a jagged emotional mountain range. The peak of the story, at least for me, came at around the 70% mark on my Kindle.
Billy has just been through a reunion with his lost father which – like some nuclear sugar high – has him feeling briefly at one with himself, but which then ends in a shocking sexual encounter of his own making. At every turn, his unrestrained nature leads him to mess up. But – shocking as it is – this is a false peak. There’s more and worst to come for Billy, much worse.
Before we get there, Lilleyman serves up the funniest passage in his story. I won’t detail it, but the chapter in question is ‘On the fifth day of Christmas.’ I loved this deft interlude. The wit comes between two very harsh passages and is appropriately arch.
There then follows a sex scene during the course of which we find ourselves inside Billy’s head, ‘and the picture changes to …’ Even Billy is horrified at how he is: ‘I shake my fucking head till the Etch-A-Sketch changes to slate, but too fucking late.’ Billy is a lost man.
The next chapter ‘Door locked’ gives us just two lines and the last word is ‘Pub’, perhaps used as a verb. Drink is all that Billy has left. Drink is his salvation and escape. Brilliant. The drama of this two line chapter is total.
The other player in all this puts in his one and only appearance shortly after this, as if to check the totality of his dominion over poor Billy: ‘the black and horny devil scaled the church organ pipes like a cloven-hooved spider.’
We are on the over side now for Billy, the descent. The language is often harsh and crude. But that is fitting. Yet there is elegance, too. Billy is seeking comfort from a priest on the phone while at the same time opening a bottle of Blue Nun. We see him drawing the cork and hear, ‘the glug of the pour’. Such artful and apt working there.
It gets better, too. Some of the best wording is at the start of the story, when Billy was a kid and towards the end when the man that is Billy is regressing and retreating to places he knew when he was a kid. We see the monster Billy and the nature boy Billy back in the woods: ‘as another gust of late summer wind shivers the drooping canopy of leaf, as he spits onto the fly tipping…and the blue night darkens.’ So too, ‘the crack-snap of the dark undergrowth’ evokes the sound of a dark fire burning around his ankles.
And always there is the drink, ‘A half-Bells and six cans of Guinness should take me through to opening time.’ It’s eight-thirty in the morning.
We are not spared. We have to know how it is. And so Lilleyman takes us down a little lower in a brilliant coda of emotional and physical collapse with just a glimpse of redemption. The last chapters of the story felt like being in the centre of a decomposing thunder cloud. The worst is over, but it rumbles on until it is no more and the air clears after its passage. It’s brilliantly raw and feels real.
I was in Brighton this week and saw several Billies swaying or dribbling in their alcoholic tragedy. Yes, Billy’s devil is alive and well and still super busy about his work in the lives of many. Having read Dean Lilleyman’s story I will always wonder who they are and what their stories are. I also went into a pub and – as I gazed at the vividly alluring shelves of schnapps and bourbon – could not help thinking that the Devil has a lot of willing helpers. I felt a little like a collaborator myself as I raised a glass to my lips. Cheers, Billy.