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Askew Review 15

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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 around.
  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!

What are the top five songs you repeatedly gravitate toward while boozed up?
  This changes, but right now:

  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 Trainspotting).
  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.)

Your 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!

 Your 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 name.
  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.

I 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 your
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 a
voided 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: its not time wasted, its time saved.
  That said, ultimately planning is only ever a means to an end. Its 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!
  Its also important to write every day - even if its 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 of
his approach to age 30 and I'm wondering if you have similar feelings about
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!

(Interviewer’s note: I also have two cats. Perhaps this will someday become a requirement for dudes who are about to turn 40). –Ben Hunter




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