From Peter Pan to James Bond, via The Man in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and JG Ballard’s alter ego, Jim, Tony Parsons chooses his favourite literary troubled males
Tony Parsons’ new novel, Men From The Boys, is the final instalment of his Harry Silver trilogy, which began with Man and Boy, and developed in Man and Wife. In it, he returns to the question of what it means to be a man in contemporary Britain, which has underpinned all three of the novels.
“My love of reading comes from my mother.
“My parents got married when they were teenagers, but for almost 10 years they tried to have a baby without success. They had given up hope of ever being parents – which was devastating for both of them, as they were both from huge families (my mum had six brothers, and my dad had eight sisters and two brothers).
“My parents were bikers – they had a Norton, a classic old English motorbike. My dad wore all black leather and my mum wore all white. They were going to ride their Norton from one end of Italy to the other – their compensation for being childless. My dad loved Italy, and could speak fluent Italian because he was there in the war from the invasion of Sicily to just before the liberation of Rome. Then I came along.
“They sold the Norton and my mum put me on her lap. Then she read to me. Endlessly. Rupert the Bear, mostly. And I fell in love with reading, and books, and stories on my mother’s lap.
“Troubled males have always fascinated me. Nothing gets under my skin quite like a boy or a man – or a male bear, like Rupert – who is working through his problems, and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. Troubled males just ring some inner bell. We all like to read about what we know.”
1. Peter Pan in Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie
Wild, love-starved and cursed with eternal youth, the boy who can never grow up is now 100 years old, yet somehow becomes more relevant with each passing year. Forget Disney; forget grinning boys in green tights with American accents. Peter Pan is infinitely more complex than that. When he flashes his milk teeth at Mrs Darling, they are snarling fangs.
2. Magwitch in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
From the moment he grabs Pip by the throat in a graveyard until the time he sneaks back from Botany Bay to reveal himself as the young man’s secret benefactor, Magwitch is one of the great tormented souls in literature. Violent, uneducated, blundering, yet full of love and desperate to do one good thing in his life.
3. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in The Rye by JD Salinger
Holden is the original crazy, mixed-up kid and anyone who can recall the agonies and ecstasies and endless yearning of adolescence will see themselves in him. But you have to read him at 16. Come to Holden later, and it’s like trying to hula-hoop for the first time when you are 40. You just can’t get it.
4. Dean Moriarty in On The Road by Jack Kerouac
Dean – Neal Cassady’s fictional alter ego – is the friend we all want; the great enabler of adventures, leaving love and home behind to answer the call of the wild. We love this restless, reckless boy even more when we see him all forlorn with empty pockets at the end of the rainbow. His fall somehow gives us permission to go home in time for our tea.
5. Jake in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
The Hemingway hero with the most undiluted Hemingway in him. A hard, hairy nut with a soft, sentimental centre, Jake travels from Paris to Spain and never wavers from his credo of two-fisted machismo and profound feelings of sexual inadequacy. His platonic love for Lady Brett Ashley and his total lack of self-pity make him Hemingway’s most likeable hero.
6. James Bond in You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
007 at his most suicidal. This is the mission in Japan when Bond is recovering from the death of his wife. He is shattered physically, spiritually and emotionally. Fleming’s greatest book sees James as less of a killing machine, more of a nervous wreck, sedating himself with murder, hard booze and mechanical sex. He was never more tortured, and never less like Roger Moore.
7. Jim in Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard
Ballard’s memoir of invasion and internment in war-time Shanghai has young Jim at its centre. Unlike the real-life Ballard, Jim has to get through the second world war without his parents. Somehow, this stroke of the fictional brush makes an already incredible story even more compelling. Jim is a typical English schoolboy waking up one day to discover that he is in hell, and totally alone.
8. The Man in The Road by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy pours every fear and anxiety of the modern father into The Man, who must make his way through a wrecked world with his son. He is the measure of our inability to protect our children from all that is rotten in the world, and you can hear his soul weeping.
9. “You” in Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
McInerney’s second-person masterpiece follows the modern male from drug-crazed hedonism all the way to his mother’s deathbed. A coke-addled clown on a journey to the end of the night, and the outer suburbs of his youth.
10. Frank Delsa in Mr Paradise by Elmore Leonard
Detective Delsa has a dead wife and the hots for a good-time girl who may possibly be involved in a murder. He knows it’s not the right move, but he just can’t stop wanting to spend the rest of his life with her. Even when she tells him she’s going out on a date. Like a lot of troubled males, at the very centre of Frank Delsa’s world is a hole in the shape of a woman.