Just A Boy’s Game: A Review Of David F. Ross’s There’s Only One Danny Garvey...
Updated: Apr 6
Most of my favourite writers manage to both meet and confound expectations, offering style and substance which is reassuringly familiar, yet giving readers something new each time. Consider just a small selection of the most celebrated authors featured on Scots Whay Hae! over the years – James Kelman, Janice Galloway, Andrew O’Hagan, A.L. Kennedy, Kirsty Logan, David Keenan – they have written about a variety of subjects using different approaches and literary techniques, but with all of them, within the first few pages, you are aware of who you are reading and why, and that alone encourages you to venture into the unfamiliar as you pay out on the trust they have earned with their previous writing.
Another who belongs to that category is David F. Ross. His ‘Disco Trilogy’ (The Last Days of Disco, The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, and The Man Who Loved Islands) introduced us to a writer who rightly followed the oft-quoted golden rule for new writers, “write what you know”, using real, or at least exaggerated, events from his own life to move the story along, and showcasing his deep obsession with music, his keen ear for everyday language, as well as an understanding of human nature – good, bad, and everything in-between. He also displayed an appealing sense of the absurdity of life, particularly with regards to men and masculinity. He was also very funny.
In his next novel, Welcome To The Heady Heights, he took the themes of those three books and expanded them, this time with a coruscating eye on celebrity culture and the infamous atrocities committed to which it offered permission and protection. The writing was still funny and fresh, but there was an anger in evidence which, in hindsight, was always there but less to the fore previously. This time around Ross got the balance between the flippant and the furious just right. It was also the sign of a writer growing in confidence that Ross was no longer content to tell his stories, but wished to comment on the lives of others.
His latest, There’s Only One Danny Garvey, sees David F. Ross making another significant step forward in terms of the quality of his prose and the complexity of the themes he deals with, and in doing so he has written his finest novel to date. Using those twin Scottish obsessions of football and family, and the highs and lows which accompany both, Ross examines how individual responsibility and the need to belong often pull us in different directions.
It is set in Ayrshire in the ’90s, arguably the glory days of that most uncompromising arena of Scottish sporting life – junior football. If you are not aware, this was/is a place where those on the way up would meet those on the way back down, as well as providing a home for plenty of ‘could-have-beens’ still living out their broken dreams. The finals used to be shown on TV in the days when live televised football was rare and were essential viewing, often for the wrong reasons. (In my late-teens I played one game for the Glasgow junior team Glencairn – once bitten – literally – twice shy). Almost equal parts skill to violence, it is, in some ways, the mixed martial arts of the beautiful game.
Due to his skill with a ball, the titular Danny Garvey had managed to escape not just lower-league football, but also his home village of Barshaw. However, he has been pulled back in as his career as a professional has withered and died due to bad luck and injury, that early promise unfulfilled. As many find, returning home is not an easy journey and even he is not sure of the wisdom of agreeing to manage the local junior team of Barshaw Bridge FC, which raises expectations all round as the prodigal returns. But Danny’s homecoming is not only to the playing fields of his youth, but to familial problems, unresolved feuds, and to face a terrible event from his past which he has never managed to put behind him.
From the beginning it appears all the odds are stacked against him, both on the field and off, but there is also the chance of redemption in the form of forgiveness, from others and from himself, and the possibility of a future in the form of Nancy and her son Damo. Triumph and tragedy are inexorably woven together, with the former only offering brief respite before reality returns. In life, as in sport, it’s the hope that kills you. But Ross is too good, and honest, a writer to offer up neat conclusions or an easy happy ending. As with most things in life, it’s complicated – very complicated.
Ross also examines the powerful and detrimental effect on small communities when industry is lost, unemployment rises, many leave if they can, and nothing is put in place to support those who stay, whose expectations are reduced to unrealistic dreams. It’s why the locals invest so much in their football team, and in Danny. Here was someone who, for a short while at least, lived their dream and his return is greeted with that curious mix of pride, anger, disappointment, and envy – a heady brew which can result in a shake of the hand or a crack in the jaw as a greeting, and Danny is never sure which to expect – perhaps both. Danny struggles with his mental health, as do many of the other characters for a variety of reasons. He might be the highest profile Barshaw boy who has been told their life is finished before it’s barely begun, but in truth it applies to many of them.
As you read on familiar David Ross themes and tropes are in evidence, a welcome reminder of who you are reading. There are pop-culture references (Lord of the Flies, Sparklehorse, The Fall, L.A. Law, It’s A Knockout, to name just a few) and his keen ear for real, and often laugh-out-loud funny, dialogue remains. Few writers manage to capture how groups of men actually speak to each other as convincingly, particularly with relation to sport, and he has the language of the dressing room down pat. But nothing gets in the way of Danny’s story and the reasons for telling it.
With There’s Only One Danny Garvey David Ross has written a morality tale for our times, but one that offers no easy answers. He gets behind the bravado and bullshit that is often integral to portrayals of Scottish masculinity, and which fellow Ayrshire writer William McIlvanney wrote about perhaps better than anyone else, to look not just at how men are, but why. It’s a powerful read, one which might surprise regular David Ross readers, but as I said at the top of the page – that’s what the best writers do.
You can, and you should, follow David F. Ross on Twitter – dfr10