A Chequered Life
The Grass Arena John Healy Faber & Faber
Even Winos donít care much for winos!In this particular circle of hell Comradeship is the price of a bottle, familiarity a mistake, probably fatal. Severed from the web of human relationships, the alky celebrates a freedom he can never enjoy. And the twists of the booze get ever tighter, turning into death, mutilation, insanity. The grass arena - the world in which the alcoholic competes for survival every day - allows few people to return from it.
John Healy made the trip and came back to write this book. It is stunning, both as a piece of writing and as a view over the edge of normality into a world of horrific contingency where death has become merely an occupational hazard. It is a place no one in their right mind would go. But then no one in their right mind does. The Grass Arena compels, attention, but it does not buttonhole. It is sober and precise, grotesque, violent, sad, charming; and hilarious; all at once.
Time and again one is appalled by the pleasure The Grass Arena furnishes as literature, when it is so very clearly not fiction. And this sense of the reader's dilemma as a privileged observer in a world of casual savagery that is palpably real is a troubling and thoroughly enriching one.
More extraordinary even than the book, is the fact that Healy was up to writing it. The first thirty years of his life are one long, catalogue of violence, repression, alcoholism and petty villainy supplemented with, the anxieties of a Catholic upbringing. Healy was born in London of poor Irish parents. Regularly beaten up by his father, brutalized and taunted by other children. He knew little of affection except during rare visits to his family in Ireland. He learned to fight back, first in the boxing ring; and then in the army the army, enlisting to avoid a prison term, then
Healy checking the habitthe habit
LITERARY REVIEW DECEMBER 1988,
getting slung into military prison - to being drunk and generally destructive he took to the streets and a full-time life of, vagrancy. Several punishing years of dereliction followed: a grim cycle of drunkenness, violence, arrest, imprisonment, release, drunkenness, villainy, etc. Then, while doing a stretch in Pentonville he discovered a way out: not religion, not AA -- chess. He stopped drinking - 'yes, it happened just like that - no dribs or drabs' - to devote himself to the game, winning tournaments, playing grand masters and, getting his games reported in the press. It is a remarkable story, but one which ends on an odd hiatus. Following an unsatisfying encounter with religion on the hippie trail, he abandoned chess, presumably to sit down and write this book.
By far the largest and most interesting portion of The Grass Arena deals with Healy's life on the park bench. His 'cure' and career as a chess champion occupy only the last twenty pages. We are all curious about what life's like when it's unbearable and Healy holds nothing back: begging scams, the DTs, lice, incontinence, the perils of rotting socks ('they're not so bad when damp and sweaty. Somehow you can handle that, squelching along. It's when they're icy they become a bit lethal') - all the minutiae of life on the margin. Above all the sudden and stupefying violence: 'Violent acts quickly, punished by further violence deteriorate the mind and body more and more until eventually the Chief Psycho puts the final boot in.' It is a common delusion that a life unregulated by morality is an easy and desirable option. Yet the life of the wino is simply an extreme example of the fragmentation of contemporary consciousness` and as such is beset by codes even more exigent and unforgiving:
'Fear plays a large part and he who can produce the most fear gets the most drink for nothing. Everything and everyone is full of tension. There are no tomorrows; tomorrow can't be relied upon to come in this vagrant society. Nothing can be taken for granted. Each day you have to prove yourself anew in toughness or lack of it, in stealing, fighting, begging and drinking.'
This edge of watchfulness has kept Healy alive and honed his perceptions. He knows the quirks of mortality and is alive to self-deceit, trying to hold a bit of sanity can make you vulnerable in many ways. It is perhaps a writer's most valuable asset. The shrewdness shows in his refusal to condemn, even those whom he meets in the ashram 'devoid of memory or concentration, or any of the fine attributes that meditation is supposed to enhance'. The Grass Arena deviates neither; into sensation nor sentiment. It is weak but of a resilient humanity, even in its darkest moments. It is incredibly funny and packed with memorable figures and stories which sometimes strain credulity. But though Healyís gifts as a writer are very considerable, it is difficult to say whether this book will presage a new career. It reads more like a staging post of a continuing journey, destination unknown. Still itís a blinder.