Could any disrespectful English tale exist without trains? Trains are to England as cars are to Springsteen, they’re fucking everywhere. At the beginning of Jason Beech’s “Never Go Back” (Close to the Bone), we meet Barlow Vine on the 3:15 from Manchester to Sheffield. Vine is fleeing both Spain and a woman, but there’s the immediate problem of a passenger, a beast of a bald man, looking to bully anyone weaker than himself.
Instead of the classic good-hearted bad guy trope, Beech constricts the space around Vine forcing him to react to the bully. True, he had those tropish feelings already, but the fun, and writer’s work, is how you get there. Beech gets us there in style.
After the altercation, the train leaves Vine off at Sheffield, and Vine’s
best only friend’s lame-ass welcoming home sets his mood for an evening of dark pints. Hell, Beech even works out a well-executed Dad joke with “Bollocks to that. I needed a drink now, and I’d learned how to drink Han Solo.”
Vine gets into a few tussles, but in Beech’s “Never Go Back”, each of these encounters has ramifications. Turns out, if you get your head slammed up against a brick wall, there are symptoms for that. So as Barlow Vine skulks about the the streets of Sheffield, his head is swimming in the delirium of post-concussion syndrome.
Too much to think about in my dehydrated state. I could drink a lake and eat the ducks which faffed around on it. I limped to the little window on the legs of an astronaut who’d been in space too long. My nose demanded attention now my headache had subsided. The grey light outside hit me like sunburst. Forced me to turn away. I squinted away the sear and tried again.
No shoulder wound cliches here.
“Never Go Back” is told from Vine’s perspective, a man driven by outside forces throughout, though he would disagree, he believes he is in complete control. This confusion between Vine’s reality and his interpretation is one of the great conflicts that propels the reader through this gritty crime novel.
Englishness oozes out of “Never Go Back” like Royal blood drips out of a Parisian car accident. There were times I found myself on Google street view following in Vine’s footsteps or pining for my English pub during the quarantine.
Beech scores a perfect hat trick with “Never Go Back” with writing, execution, and story all at a top-notch level. Great lines like “The bar heaved” or scenes like “The pub across the road invited me back in. So warm. Good beer. Too crammed, and occupied by a few arseholes, but isn’t that life?’ had me turning the pages swiftly and ignoring the handful of typos and formatting issues I came upon.