The Former Boy Wonder by Robert Graham

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Review by Rob Spence

Pete Duffy is having a mid-life crisis. His fiftieth birthday is on the horizon, and his career as a freelance rock music journalist is in freefall. His wife seems to barely tolerate him, and his teenage son ignores him. And he is obsessing about his girlfriend from thirty years ago.

Robert Graham’s new novel explores the domestic landscape of family and friends, relationships, ambitions and dreams. While the narrative is strictly grounded in the messiness of the real world, the central character’s lively fantasy life, sometimes visualised as pastiche film scripts, lends a gently humorous flavour to the mixture.

After a short opening section, establishing Duffy’s origins in a small Northern Ireland town, the rest of the novel alternates between scenes set in the eighties, when he is a student, and thirty years later, when several threads of his life come together to force a kind of resolution.

The relationship between fathers and sons is crucial to the plot. Duffy’s father abandons his wife and young child to pursue a successful showbiz career in England. That betrayal colours Pete Duffy’s approach to his own relationships, and perhaps fires his own rather obsessive nature when it comes to his own love life. The eighties sections deal with the young Duffy’s time as a student at Manchester Polytechnic, and his love affair with the more sophisticated Sanchia. The scenes set in the 2010s deal with his life with the efficient and competent Lucy, formerly his college flatmate. In a kind of role-reversal, she has now become the breadwinner in the marriage, as her business succeeds while his previously stellar career as a music journalist falters. Then an invitation to a party at which Sanchia might be present arrives, and Pete is drawn into a dream of what might have been and what could still be.

As in his other writing, Robert Graham is at his best here observing the minutiae of everyday life, the compromises couples make, the small quotidian triumphs and disasters. The evocation of student life is spot on – the squalor, the posters, the endless cups of instant coffee will all be familiar to readers of a certain generation. Similarly, the twenty-first century suburban milieu that Pete occupies with his wife and son is rendered with acuity, down to the requisite brands of white goods that a middle-class family of this type would favour.

For this reviewer, another joy of reading this is the specificity of the locales. Graham’s settings are very carefully described, and in this novel, small areas of south Manchester are the dominant locations. Graham uses real street names, so if you live literally a few hundred yards from the protagonist, as I do, then visualising the actual buildings and shops adds an extra layer of realism. 

The novel uses Duffy as a first-person narrator, but one who is self-critical, and indeed at times emotionally wounded by self-doubt. The tone, however, is generally light, even when dealing with the mental turmoil that he finds himself in. His sensibility, honed by his love of comic-book art, cinema and classic rock music, is delicately drawn. Rarely a page goes by without a glance at a song, a film, or a comic-book hero, and this really helps the reader empathise with him. There are poignant and bittersweet moments in this very affecting novel, with believable characters and clearly realised settings.

It is to be hoped that Robert Graham goes on to produce more long fiction. His only other single-authored novel, Holy Joe, came out some years ago, but he has produced a number of short story collections. This new novel, which shows off his talent for finding the remarkable in the ordinary, is one to relish. 

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Robert Graham, The Former Boy Wonder (Lendal Press, 2022). 978-1912436934, 352pp., paperback original.

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