Jack Newsome is the owner of three first names and a poor English Literature degree from Manchester university, and when The Bitterman opens he is cast adrift not knowing what to do other than staying in the city where he studied.

His friends have all left. “The driven high-achievers had migrated like a sudden murmuration of gifted starlings to jobs in London,” those with lower degrees had received jobs in provincial towns, but what can Jack do with his third class degree? The answer is work in a pub. And so, The Lion’s Head rapidly becomes the centre of Jack’s world.

The Bitterman is Anthony Balkwill’s first novel, and it is at its most successful at recreating the sights, sounds, smells of a busy pub in the 1980s. As someone who worked in her fair share of pubs in her youth, I could identify immediately with the lingering ‘base note odour’ of beer, the cigarette burnt carpets, the wet bar towels, the sudden rush to meet last orders at 10.30pm, the camaraderie of colleagues and the satisfaction in pulling a good pint “with its gleaming amber body, topped with a rich white collar, half an inch thick”.

It’s a colourful world which becomes Jack’s whole working and social life as he gains a sense of purpose and becomes aware of previously unnoticed strata of society: the labourers, the office workers, the shop owners and so on.

But there are increasingly sinister and violent undertones. The pub is owned by the aggressive Burtons and the even more menacing doorman Mark Hunt who despises students and women equally. Their lucrative sideline is selling drugs and they encourage Jack to cover the student market. Ignoring the advice of those warning against it, Jack pounds his old haunts flogging ecstasy. As he does so, Balkwill evocatively describes Jack’s sense of distance from the immaturity and excesses of the endless drinking and drug taking of student life.

This sense of disassociation is a recurring theme, however. For reasons never wholly explained Jack has three first names. He was Jonathan at school, Dave at university and Jack now. He is constantly reinventing himself and suffers from bouts of melancholy. He has no friends outside the pub and has a distant relationship with his parents. His father suffers from depression, his mother is an English teacher and Jack is “loved but in the unincluded margins, alongside them”.

So when it spirals into disaster as Jack is left in charge of the pub at Christmas, he has no one he can turn to for help.

As a long-term resident of Cyprus, Balkwill mentions the island fleetingly, but it is the lovingly recreated smoky, beer-infused pub of 1980s Manchester that is the real star of the show.

 

The Bitterman by Anthony Balkwill is available on Amazon kindle and Kobo