STAG by Tim
Relf. Fiction, 2004. 264 pages. Piatkus
Books. Drinking and reading are two of my favorite activities (even
more fun than, say, pointing and laughing). Since Stag
gave me the opportunity to read ABOUT drinking, it might seem like a given
that I’d enjoy the hell out of it. And I did, but not for the reasons
you may think (ya fuckin’ know-it-all). I actually dig this book so much
because it made me ponder the reasons why I often drink more than I
should, and also because I’m a sappy got-dang sucker for well written
narratives that pull you in immediately and that have chill-inducing
endings that leave me with a smile and a little lump in my throat.
Stag is the tale of
29-year-old Rob Purcell, who likes a drink as much as- okay, generally
much more than- the next guy. Emma, his excellent girlfriend, has just
broken up with him because she finally got tired of his drunk ass not
wanting to do anything aside from going to the pub. (Note to self: Try to
suggest more activities to do with Donna than getting stuck into an all
day session at Bukowski’s). Losing Emma is a monumentally painful blow,
but at least Rob will be able to immerse himself in the joyful oblivion of
his best friend’s upcoming bachelor party weekend. He’s meeting up
with his three closest male friends from college (even though he wanted
their female partner in crime, Claire, to come along, his pals felt it was
improper to have a woman with them for a stag bash) in their old
university town. Rob, as usual, ends up blasted out of his mind and does
some very regrettable things. And it’s amazing how well Tim Relf writes
these excruciatingly awkward, at times darkly hilarious scenes. (Imagine
what trouble a younger, British Larry David with a serious drinking
problem would get into). In the end Rob has a big time heart to heart with
himself and figures out why his drinking has gotten steadily worse. And
then he takes it from there.
One thing I love about this book is the very insightful way Tim
Relf breaks down the reasons so many of us enjoy our booze. He describes
perfectly how fuckin’ awesome that first sip of beer feels on a
promising night out, and how fantastically good it is to bond with your
best pals- how you’re in your own exclusive world, really- over way too
many drinks. His descriptions of how the id totally takes over (the
eventual desperate need for female company, the self-doubt, the
long-simmering perceived slights of good friends boiling over among
others). And Relf also digs into the reasons why a lot of us take things
way too far. In Rob’s case it’s a lack of self-confidence and
self-esteem and a frustration with the career path he’s chosen, coupled
with a longing for the good old days of his younger self. Rob can only
really move forward by digging into these uncomfortable truths, and Tim
Relf beautifully illustrates the difficulty of his struggle to turn things
In the spirit of full disclosure, I drank a few beers while writing
this review. They may or may not have helped, but interestingly enough, my
iTunes shuffle spit out a number of drinking songs while I’ve been
pounding away on my keyboard (“Too Drunk To Fuck” by the Dead Kennedys,
“Baby I’m Drunk” AND “It’s Martini Time” by the Reverend
Horton Heat, and the poignant, POIGNANT “Here Comes A Regular” by the
Replacements to name a few). But maybe this just means that I have an
overabundance of alcohol-related content on my iPod.
Tim Relf was cool enough and kind enough to answer a few of my
questions. Here’s the Q&A:
In Stag I think you completely
nailed the glorious feeling of taking the
night's (or day's) first drink. And while I can't claim to be as far along
the abuse scale as Rob was, I very much related to a lot of the low points
he hit. While this might be a bit of a blunt question, did you write Rob's
demise based entirely on your own experiences, or did you make some - or
most - of it up?
I was never (quite!) as far along the road towards alcoholism as
Rob, but there were spells in my 20s when I was drinking way more than I
should have been. I don’t drink much these days, although I still enjoy
the occasional beer.
I wrote this book because I desperately wanted to write and people
told me to write about what I knew - so I figured I’d go for a book with
booze at its heart.
The good thing about having written Stag, of course, is that all
the time I spent in bars now counts as research!
are the top five songs you repeatedly gravitate toward while boozed up?
This changes, but
Anything by the Rolling Stones.
‘Mr Brightside’ by The Killers.
‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis (I think Oasis are generally overrated,
but this is the British anthem
of the 1990s).
‘Born Slippy’ by Underworld (the version from the movie
And, weirdly, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ by Gladys Night and
the Pips (For some reason this always makes me want to dance. And believe
me, one thing I can’t do is dance.)
most cringe-inducing morning after memory?
This could be a long answer. One that often still comes back to
haunt me is waking up one morning on the floor in a hotel corridor. I was
outside the restaurant and the guests had to walk past me to get in for
breakfast. Not one of them said a word, they ignored me and simply stepped
over me. Typical British behaviour!
website mentions some potential interest in making Stag into a film.
Any progress on that? And if you could assemble your dream cast, who would
you like to see star in it? And could I help with the soundtrack?
No, sadly no
progress on a movie yet.
If it does happen, I’d like it to have unknown actors because I
think well-known faces bring a certain baggage - you can’t help
remembering them in previous roles. A couple of my friends are actors so
I’m also aware of how hard it is getting parts if you’re not a big
There again, I want to make some money out of this. So fuck
artistic integrity, get Matt Damon!
As for the soundtrack, I’m no expert on music (as you can
probably tell from some of my song choices above!) so, yes, all
suggestions gratefully received.
haven't yet had the opportunity to read Home, your follow up to Stag, but
can you tell me how you approached the writing of this one after having
first novel under your belt?
The single biggest difference was that I did more planning. I wrote
both novels in my spare time while holding down a job, but Stag took ten
years to write while Home only took two. Basically I avoided
writing in characters, scenes and even whole chapters that were
subsequently written out.
Constructing fiction is like building a house - get the foundations
right and it makes the rest easier. Early planning is the foundations of
your book: it’s
not time wasted, it’s
said, ultimately planning is only ever a means to an end. It’s
never a substitute for writing.
Sooner or later the planning has to stop and you have to do the most
frightening thing of all: actually start writing it!
also important to write every day - even if it’s
only for half an hour. It keeps the characters fresh in your mind.
My wife just had a small-scale bash
for me and a few friends who were born
in 1968, calling it the Summer of 39 party. As a fellow 1968-er, what are
your thoughts on turning 40 next year? (In Stag Rob seemed very conscious
his approach to age 30 and I'm wondering if you have similar feelings
this next milestone).
Congratulations on your forthcoming 40th, Ben. And commiserations!
You’re right about that milestone thing. I guess when it comes to
age - like with a lot of things - men aren’t always great at addressing
the issue, but we can’t avoid these big milestones so they hit us hard.
I’ve got mixed feelings. I like my life right now, but I’m also
conscious that I’m probably over half way through it.
One thing I’m sure of though - my life’s certainly changed
beyond all recognition compared to a few years ago. I’ve even got two
cats these days, how middle-aged is that!
note: I also have two cats. Perhaps this will someday become a requirement
for dudes who are about to turn 40). –Ben Hunter