There are some books that make you angry, turn puce with rage then blush with envy. You end up asking yourself: How does this writer do it? How do they get away with writing a novel that sounds like you’re talking to one of your mates in the pub? He’s spilling his guts out, relating all that’s occurred good and bad and letting everyone have it, both barrels blazing left, right and centre.
Neil Campbell’s Zero Hours is just such a novel. Set in Manchester it relates the trials and tribulations of a young author negotiating Brexit Britain. He endures a series of zero hour contract jobs, in post office sorting depots and public libraries. Along the way he encounters poverty, racism and a general ignorance of those in authority. He has an on again off again affair with a co-worker and a series of one night stands all of which come to nothing. Things don’t seem to be going his way.
Against this the narrator never surrenders. He is doggedly determined to achieve success as a writer. Already published and with a number of short stories anthologised he launches his latest book with results which can only be described as farcical. Sitting among the sparse audience is his old drinking buddy and he spends whatever money he made from the sales that night in the pub.
Zero Hours uses an ever changing Manchester as its backdrop. The city is languishing under the twin evils of austerity and gentrification, the contradictions run side by side as a new city emerges from the ashes of the old.
“City centre Manchester didn’t seem to fit with what I was seeing on the news, hearing on the radio. Everyone was skint, hundreds of people hundreds of people having to go to food banks including mates of mine…”
The two versions of Britain running in tandem captured in just a few sentences.
Neil Campbell knows Manchester well. He’s familiar with the topography, the canals, waste grounds and rivers. He is a guide through the city’s literary scene its venues and characters, the comings and goings, its fleeting successes and perennial failures. Here the book sparkles and no wonder, Neil Campbell is a native Mancunian who puts his working knowledge of the city to good effect.
Comparisons are bound to be made with Charles Bukowski, William Ginsberg and of course Jack Kerouac. But for me what came to mind was John Fante’s series of novels featuring Auturo Bandini. As in Zero Hours the main protagonist is trying to make it in the literary scene while being stuck in a series of dead end badly paying jobs. Nothing changes.
Zero Hours is the second volume of Neil Campbell’s Manchester trilogy. Honestly, if ever a novel deserved literary accolades and bouquets it’s this one. Zero Hours possesses more energy, grind and determination than a decade of Bookers. If there was any justice it should be jumping off the bookshelves.
Any Cop?: Any improvements can only come from the publishers via the re-issue of Sky Hooks, volume one of the Manchester trilogy.
[ed. note – thanks to the good people of Twitter for pointing out that Sky Hooks is in fact obtainable ad can be purchased here]