Billy Liar, by Keith Waterhouse

First, imagine Salinger – specifically, imagine Catcher in the Rye. Next, imagine PG Wodehouse, preferably as performed by Fry and Laurie in the old Jeeves and Wooster TV series. Step three: imagine Yorkshire. Ideally a Yorkshire combining the grimness of the Oop North with a strong dose of Monty Python (the ‘trouble up t’mill’, ‘spanish inquistion’ and ‘four yorkshiremen’ sketches all spring to mind).

Combine these three elements, and you’ve got a rough idea of what Billy Liar is like. At first glance, it is a simple re-write of Catcher: both are short novels from the fifties, both are the first-hand accounts of adolescent males, both relate the events of a single day, both deal heavily with issues of identity, authenticity, language, alienation, and so on.

Billy Liar, however, is in my opinion rather better than Catcher in the Rye – and it’s certainly more readable.

Billy Fisher is 19, a young adult or an old child, and he lives the bucolic idyll (or not) or Stradhoughton, a small Yorkshire town surrounded by moorland. He lives with his parents and his grandmother, and works for a firm of undertakers. His ambition, however, is to be a comic scriptwriter, and as the novel opens he is about to tell his family the good news: he has been offered a job in London. Before he can take that job, however, he has a few loose ends to tie up is Stradhoughton – mostly concerning either his love-life (he has at least three girlfriends, at least two of whom he is engaged to), or his current employers (who may, or may not, be about to discover one or two little misdemeanours and mistakes young Billy has made during his time with them). Many of these problems have arisen in part through his almost pathological tendency to lie through his teeth.

Billy, you see, is a fantasist. It is established early on that he has been “spending a good part of my time, more of it as each day passed, on this thinking business”; ordinary thoughts aside, this thinking is divided into two types: “obsessional speculations”  about various real or imagined disasters, ranging from disease to discovery of real or potential crimes; and daydreams that reconfigure the world and its inhabitants, running the gamut from slight modifications (an imagined conversation, say) to all-out  fantasy, in which Billy is (or is seeking to become) the President of the small nation of Ambrosia, complete with its own history, town planning, and language. It seems likely that this repeated flight into fantasy has something to do with his tendency to tell people, for instance, that he has a sister (he hasn’t), or a cat (he hasn’t), or that his father is a retired sea captain (he isn’t) or a working cobbler (he isn’t) or that the mother of a friend has broken her leg (she hasn’t). Or perhaps it’s simply that he has seen through the assemblage of cliche and ritual that makes up the life of the people around him, and has come to see it all as an elaborate performance of allotted roles and lines, in which he defiantly ad-libs – sometimes because it’s what people want to hear, sometimes just to make them miss their own cues, and sometimes simply to avoid saying whatever he’s expected to say.  This self-aware performance seems certainly to be part of the reason why he’s told (at least) two people he’ll marry them: it was simply what his character had to say at that moment, and in each case received in kind (one woman has apparently accepted his offer of marriage “probably thinking it bad manners to refuse”)

Mirroring Billy’s difficult transition into adulthood is the world around him, gradually transitioning from the old and the local to the new and the cosmopolitan, a transition Billy is decidedly ambiguous about. The old Yorkshire (of, for instance, his father, and of Councillor Duxbury, who retains a broad dialect) is obsolete, but the new world seems thin, copied, inauthentic and impersonal. And Billy is alienated from both directions: he is too much a son of Yorkshire to embrace the new wholeheartedly, and there is nobody there waiting for him, but he is not permitted to remain in the past – when his father catches him speaking dialect, for instance, he is furious that his son is not making use of the education given him, and suspicious that Billy is mocking him. Which, of course, he is, because unable to enter the secret society of the past he retaliates by dismissing it – while not quite sure if in the process he is mocking himself. As much as he wants to rise above the people around him, they still know him, and he still knows himself – it does not escape his attention, to give an example, that he himself speaks in repetitive phrases little more original than the clichés for which he castigates those around him. He searches for a rock of authenticity to ground himself on, but finds only performance, and as a result is trapped between fantasy and reality.

Yet Billy still feels more connected to others than Holden does – indeed, it is the web of connections that seem to hold him fast – and in the same way the novel feels more connected, less egocentric, more relevant, than Catcher. Yes, it is one of the early contributions to the post-war Bildungsroman tradition, following fast on Salinger’s heels, but it is also more than that. Its themes of gritty social realism, disillusionment, alienation, the lower-classes, the ‘provinces’, the issues of identity surrounding aspiration and modernisation, all put it alongside its Angry Young Men contemporaries, if not wholly part of the movement. Meanwhile, the reference to Wodehouse was not coincidental: Billy Liar is a native of a certain tradition of British comic writing that emphasises detachment, irony, and flippancy. Billy’s actual jokes (which strike the modern audience as very old-fashioned and corny) may not actually be funny, but his stiff-upper-lip interior monologue is often hilarious (though, as is the wont of such humour, no single sentence stands out, taken away from its brethren). It is this comic element (which should be no surprise: Waterhouse also wrote for That Was the Week That Was and The Frost Report) that takes what could otherwise be a dour, uninteresting foray into egotistical amateur psychology and turns it into a genuinely enjoyable novel. That and the fact that it actually has a plot, as the various elements of Billy’s deceptions come crashing down upon him, in a race against his (any time now!) departure for London.

I don’t want to say much more, because it is a very short book, and any more discussion of content would start to spoil it, I think. Besides, there’s just not that much to say.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Normally I find this sort of psychological vignette rather dull – but not this time. It’s true that the action does lag for a while, after the impact of the character introduction and before the plot starts kicking in (or rather, before the importance of the plot becomes apparent). Because this section is largely discovery of facts through oblique references, it was less exciting on a re-read, when I already knew what was going on, and who was who. However, once the trap starts to close on Billy, the tension and the action ratchet swiftly up, up to a genuinely riveting finale. I suppose that if you hate Billy, this might not interest you, however.

Emotion: 4/5. I didn’t actually start crying this time, although I think I did the first time I read it. But I did find it extremely moving. Perhaps because it’s a rare “literary” novel where I actually cared about the character, and I found the later stages extremely poignant.

Thought: 4/5. For a book this short (my copy is under 190 pages), and mostly devoid of actual sustained thinking-about-things passages, there’s a surprising amount of depth of content to be found here, both on the social and psychological levels. It doesn’t actually answer any questions, or even explore them in great depth, but it is highly suggestive of thoughts, as it were, and provides a rich texture of ideas for the reader to investigate.

Beauty: 3/5. Mostly above average, both due to the elegant humour of Billy’s monologue and to the sections of Yorkshire dialect, which possess a raw, archaic beauty of their own. Dropped down a bit due to some annoying teenageness, particularly the weird, postmodern humour of Billy’s purposefully-unfunny exchanges with his friend. They’re meant to be ugly, that’s the point – but they’re still ugly.

Craft: 4/5. Billy is perhaps a BIT too annoying. And as a result, the action lags a bit in places. And now and then some of the supporting characters are a little flat in their dialogue. Other than that, truly excellent. Waterhouse manages not create a compelling – both likeable and annoying – central character, and allow us to simultaneously judge the world through his eyes and judge his own judgements. When he condemns those around him, we laugh along with his bitter remarks, and see their validity, while still seeing Billy himself as both misanthropic and naive.

Endearingness: 4/5. Billy is a character I can empathise with – not at a surface level, as he and I are almost entirely different, but certainly at a deeper psychological stratum I can see the resemblance. And the book is very funny, and the conclusion both gripping and moving. The only reason I don’t LOVE it is that… well, sometimes Billy DOES get a little annoying.

Originality: 2/5. What originality it possesses largely comes from being at the intersection of different lines of descent. There’s nothing about it truly astonishing. Unsurprising – it’s about life, and only a day in a life at that, so no great amazements should be expected.

Echo: ½. I had a tingling under my skin for some time after reading this: it didn’t knock me to my knees, but it got into my flesh and made me think about life.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. Going by my old scoring, only ‘good’, but I’ve decided to recalibrate my scale, since the gap between between books I was rating as ‘good’ was bigger than between ‘good’ and ‘very good’ (of which there weren’t many). So, I’ll be going through and changing some of the scores later on. But anyway: this is a book I really liked, and will read many more times in the future. And if you hate it… it’s under 200 pages, so you haven’t missed much. And you can probably get it for under £1.

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2 thoughts on “Billy Liar, by Keith Waterhouse

  1. bbbgtoby says:

    very much enjoyed this review. thank you.

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