A History of Stone and Steel by Christopher Fisher is an unusual read that is both compelling and thought provoking. I was hooked from the first page and it is a credit to Fisher’s skill as a writer that he drew me in so effectively and made me care about a character who is not very likeable.
Paul Keppel is like a middle-aged Holden Caulfield – 43 years old and still going through life in a self-absorbed bubble with no idea who he really is. The story is told in first person narrative and the only thing that kept me from fully detesting Paul was his wry humour and the fact that he knows that he is a “ridiculous man.”
The novel begins in the present where Paul is married with one year old twin girls and another child on the way. He is a dissertation away from completing his PHD which will allow him to teach and take the financial pressure off his family. However, he is stuck in some kind of no man’s land unable to put pen to paper. Matters are compounded as he is suffering from debilitating headaches and insomnia caused by a recurring dream.
The dream takes on a life of its own and forms part of the structure of the story when Fisher takes us on a journey which alternates between the present and the summer of 1991 when Paul worked in a steel plant. As the novel unfolds the tension increases as Fisher hints that the incidents of 1991 have impacted massively on Paul’s present. By the time the time line meets up at the end of the novel the suspense is almost unbearable.
My favourite parts of the novel are the ones in the steel plant. Fisher creates a world that is vividly terrifying. He describes inside the plant as being like hell with the heat and physical labour and the reader is left with no doubt of the harsh conditions and danger that the men are working in every day. All this is offset though by the camaraderie of the men and the unique relationships that develop in such a tough environment.
One of Paul’s weaknesses is that he is unable to accept people as they are. He is easily disappointed when people can’t be who he wants them to be. His father is a hard working man, often working double shifts in the steel plant to provide for his family. He clearly loves his son, there is a tender scene where he makes Paul breakfast and he’s also given him his beloved old truck and paved his way into the steel plant. However, he’s not particularly demonstrative for which Paul can’t forgive him.
Paul’s sense of dislocation seems to stem from the fact that when he was just eight years old his ‘fire and brimstone’ grandfather, “the reverend”, declared him to be a prophet. Consequently Paul’s childhood was defined by his feelings of being special and his grandfather’s dream of him attending bible school and becoming a preacher. It is only as a young man that Paul is able to free himself from his grandfather’s dominating presence.
Maybe as a result of his grandfather’s overbearing personality, Paul becomes like a spectator in his own life. He loves his first girlfriend, Angela; because she wants him to and then goes on to marry Carrie because she makes it easy for him. At no time does he make an actual commitment. It’s ironic that his anger towards his own father stems from their lack of communication because his relationship with his own daughters seems very distant which is emphasised by his friend Gary’s ability to easily engage with them.
Fisher uses Gary as a direct contrast to Paul. A mature student working his way through college, Gary is an ex-Marine who perhaps has reason to feel sorry for himself. He walks with a limp due to a bizarre accident whilst in service and is troubled by his wartime experience. Paul has everything that Gary doesn’t and, maybe due to his loneliness, Gary quickly insinuates himself into Paul’s life and becomes his partner in crime. Paul and Gary’s antics provide much of the comedy in the novel. As Paul’s behaviour becomes increasingly out of control, Gary is like the voice of reason even though he clearly has a great many mental health issues of his own.
I’m not sure what to make of Paul’s long suffering wife, Carrie, or indeed why she puts up with his unreasonable, selfish behaviour. Despite being pregnant she is the one who keeps the family together, working in a bank, taking care of the twins and seemingly doing all of the household chores. She even collects Paul’s medication for him while he wallows in self pity and pretends to write his dissertation. Since marrying Paul she has found religion which perhaps explains why she stays with him or maybe she is simply a realistic portrayal of why people stay in marriages that to outsiders don’t seem worth the trouble.
The end of the book came as a massive surprise to me which, despite the escalating tension, I never saw coming. I think A History of Stone and Steel is an intelligent book which raises lots of questions. Religion runs through the entire novel and with it the idea that it is not religion but the way in which we interpret it that causes so many problems. It is very much a novel of our time and Paul is the perfect representative of our self obsessed society. He mirrors the way we all seem to spend our time looking inward and struggling with existential angst rather than just getting on with life and making the best of what we have.
I loved A History of Stone and Steel and as much as I wanted to slap Paul I was completely intrigued by his story. It’s a thoughtful and at times hilarious book which is extremely well written. If you like something that is a bit quirky and different then I can’t recommend this one highly enough. e He stems