The demand for coal altered the landscape of the South Wales valleys during the industrial revolution and its ramifications continue to be observed, measured and interpreted by writers and artists from the area.
The structure of Dai Smith’s debut novel, Dream On, can be compared to the abundant coal seams that brought workers from all over the country to South Wales in search of a living during the Industrial Revolution. It is the direct and indirect consequences of coal mining industry at this time, along with the catastrophic effects of the Second World War, that informs the lives of each of the novel’s characters.
However, while Dream On may be layered like coal seams its storylines are not. Everything is connected.
Billy Maddox, a renowned photographer from an unnamed though not unrecognisable township in South Wales, is prompted to return from New York to his hometown following a call from a young woman claiming to be his daughter. In the duration of his quest for truth regarding the paternity of Haf and claims of corruption on the behalf of his former friends (with whom he’d been involved in organising miners strikes) regarding EU funding, he is confronted also with the spectre of his dead father. Dai Maddox is a man who likes to make connections and who disapproved of his son’s choice of career for such reasons. Maddox Sr regarded photographs as ‘false prompts’ that ‘made the memory stutter out one instant which blocked out all others…fixed images which surfaced to hint at but not reveal the depth of a life.’ Later on in a passage from the same section, entitled ‘His Old Man Said’, Billy describes how his father had, ‘wondered how that history which had now left us could be properly remembered’ for, as Dai Maddox saw it:
lists and structured narratives were another species of lie. That the simultaneity of any actual life was what gave it value and so any flattening or compartmentalisation was as much of a subsequent denial of the humaness of living as, in life, was the denial of the interconnectedness of desire.
This brings to mind William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and Quentin’s conceptualisation of Shreve’s accusation that he sounds like his ‘old man’ suggesting:
Maybe we are both father. Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter.
In a letter to his son, Dai Maddox, outlines the various investigations he has made in order to make sense, to decompartmentalise, his own life, and in turn offers his findings to his son so that he may ‘know the connections’ for himself. This makes sense, for Billy Maddox’s narrative, which makes up most of the Smith’s novel, is about coming to terms with the loose ends of the life he left behind twenty years earlier. At one point Smith shifts briefly from using first to third person narration in order to exacerbate Billy’s predicament, that is to put some mental distance between his present self and the person he had been before he left Wales. It is no coincidence that this occurs when he is remembering his dead father, and it becomes clear that his search is for identity as much as anything else.
And it is the dead or absent father that is perhaps one of the strongest themes of Dream On. For this reason the comparison to Absalom, Absalom!, and to the American Southern Gothic tradition in general, grows in significance. The over-reaching and subsequent failure of partriarchy, the unemployment and poverty resulting from pit closures, not to mention the ensuing dereliction and decay, the violence and despair – all permeate Dream On in a way that cannot be compartmentalised. On the contrary, all are fused together and brought to life in a variety of styles that are a testament to Smith’s calibre as a writer. For instance, there is the Alan Bennett, Talking Head-esque monologue from Rita, the one time mistress of Richie ‘Digger’ Davies, whose notoriety on the rugby pitch for stunting the opposition’s attack with a crunching tackle brings him a sole cap for Wales, enough to ensure that his status of local hero will be maintained for posterity. The ‘Who Whom’ section of Dream On is dedicated to Digger, the likes of whom, in terms of Welsh rugby and his general disposition, are being forgotten. For those of us familiar with the non-professional club rugby scene, that is, before the George Norths and Sam Warburtons; Richie ‘Digger’ Davies is someone we all recognise, whose only thought on a surprising sexual encounter is to ‘tell the boys’, even at sixty-five years old.
At times, Smith’s writing hovers on the last edge of prose, aspiring to be poetry, and like poetry demands to be read out loud.
And he looked to the back of the bus, all singing the lyric and shouting the refrain, and he saw the girl, his age, sitting, not singing, on the long seat across the aisle, at the back of the bus, and he saw her hair wet, plastered, black gloss of hair cut to frame her face with its shining eyes above her wet and reddened cheeks and as he did, stopping to sing the song that still rang all around him, unsmiling she looked straight at him.
Prose, in other words, is the very essence of this episode; the ‘thwarted politician’ turned politcal biographer is remembering his life on a hospital bed, having read his to-be-published obituary. (This reader was reminded of T. S. Eliot’s ‘With your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.’) This is the opening section of Dream On, entitled ‘Obit. Page’, and as the dying politician lets slip the obituary from his hand, he describes having ‘neglected his family more than he would have wished’ and finds his son irksome as the latter tells him what ‘A Great Life’ he’d had.
What follows is probably the strongest part of Dream On. Part Southern Gothic (in the mould of Flannery O’Connor) and part Wuthering Heights, the themes and storylines of ‘Never Felt More’ warrant a novel in themselves.
An illegitmate baby girl is the result of a liaison between a black American G.I. and a married Valley’s woman whose Irish husband, Brian Riley, is in action across the Rhine at the tail end of the Second World War. Our narrator, Gareth, was born within hours of, Theresa Riley, and describes the events that follow, not only the return of Brian Riley to the Valley, but also the ‘generational fall-out’ that proceeded the end of the war. In a scene which truly encapsulates the Southern Gothic genre, tragedy strikes at the heart of our narrator’s world and he bears witness to an act he observes stood on tip toes through the window of his home. This scene provides us with a lasting image, one which perhaps best embodies Smith’s novel as a whole. Gareth then runs to his den and taking a sheath knife, a birthday present from his father, he describes how he had ‘plunged the knife, into the green breast of the river turf over and over.’
This is the ‘Land of my Fathers’ into which the knife is being plunged, ‘the world’, Gareth concludes at the end of ‘Never Felt More’, ‘which our fathers had left for us to die in.’