This is one of the best collections of short stories, by an artist I'd never heard of, that I have ever read. Sillitoe was born and raised in Nottingham, England, in a working-class family. At the age of 14 he left school and went to work with his father in a local bicycle factory. The stories in this collection mostly deal with families like Sillitoe's - poor factory workers living in cramped, dirty houses where the noise, soot and grime of the nearby factory is a constant part of their lives.
The title story is about a young man (Colin) who robs a bakery and is sent to a borstal, a sort of part youth prison, part reform school. The governor (warden) of the borstal gives him the opportunity to run cross-country meets for the prison track team; Colin is a good runner, and the governor thinks he will help him to win against a posh private school and get the borstal some good publicity. Throughout the race against the private school, Colin is way in the lead, but he stops running shortly before the finish line, intentionally losing the race to show the governor he is in charge of his own life.
"Uncle Ernest" is about a veteran of World War I who has suffered a mental breakdown due to his experiences in the war. There is an almost childlike innocence to him; when he meets two young girls at a diner, obviously poor and hungry, he offers to buy them something to eat. He continues to meet the girls at the diner, and the older of the two begins taking advantage of his innocence, getting him to buy them other things. Unfortunately, Ernest's motives are misunderstood by other patrons of the diner; they (and the police) assume he is a pervert, and warn him away from the girls.
I enjoyed all the stories in this volume, but I think my favorite was "The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller". Frankie is a young man of about twenty, who has the mental capacity of a younger boy; he acts as general (though he prefers to be called sergeant-major) in the neighborhood boys' skirmishes with other groups of boys. World War II is approaching, and Frankie assumes that when the war starts, he'll go to join his father's regiment; obviously, when the war does begin, he is rejected for service and ends up assisting the local civil defense patrols. This story is obviously at least partially autobiographical; Frankie addresses the narrator as "Alan", and Alan is a writer of stories about his old neighborhood. Sillitoe uses the story to reminisce about his own childhood and to express regret over having "moved on" to be a well-known writer who seems to have lost touch with his roots.
Reviewers have compared this book to The Catcher in the Rye, calling Colin a "British Holden Caulfield". It's easily one of the best collections of short stories I've ever read.
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