REVIEW by Ffion Lindsay

NWR Issue r1

The Dead City Rollers

by RT Stroud

The Dead City Rollers begins with Alistair, a dopey antihero with a grim past, before RT Stroud’s Swansea-set novel rapidly explodes outwards to encompass the kind of regular cast more suited to an epic TV series. Drug addicts, gangsters, clergy, Hari Krishnas, the upper crust – all populate the pages and do their part to drive forward this dense, multilayered story.

It’s an ambitious, sprawling first novel from Stroud, a teacher from Swansea, now based in Cardiff. I made the same move myself in my early twenties, although I eventually settled in Bristol, so I approached The Dead City Rollers with personal – as well as professional – curiosity.

The novel has been praised for having ‘a real sense of place’, and that place is Swansea. I read in an interview that Stroud considered setting the novel in an unnamed town and I’m glad he didn’t – I can’t imagine this novel being set anywhere else.

Real-life Swansea has all the basic themes of the novel lined up and ready to use – drugs, organized crime, intense class snobbery and desperation. In the novel, Swansea is a dark, lawless place that’s been closed off and abandoned by the rest of the world. It’s ruled over by petty mobsters and the sinister and paternalistic crachach of the town, while the weak are swallowed up. If The Dead City Rollers had been set anywhere else, the novel might be read as melodrama – in Swansea, it’s closer to documentary.

The Dead City Rollers is cinematic in its scope, and many of its cultural touchstones seem to come from cinema. It shares its intense character portraits with the 1997 film Twin Town. It also shares similar themes as well – small town gangsters, corrupt cops and men being tipped into the sea. Combine that with the bleak narcotics inheritance shown in the documentary Swansea Love Story – and a hint of Welsh horror film Darklands’ cult menace – and you’re left with a seething indictment of Swansea’s stagnation and corruption, only slightly tempered by its humour.

The combination of bizarre humour and criticism also reminded me of Malcolm Pryce’s Louie Knight mysteries, which execute a similarly scathing takedown of Aberystwyth culture. They both have that macabre humour which I think a lot of Welsh writing shares – see the brilliant Aberystwyth Mon Amour for further reading.

Nobody could criticize the spirit of the novel – it’s bold and, despite sharing many of its themes with the works I’ve mentioned, it feels new. Unfortunately, The Dead City Rollers is let down by its own ambition. Stroud could have shed a quarter of the cast and a third of the words, and the novel would be stronger for it. At one point I had to draw myself a little who’s who of characters, particularly for all the gang members. The world Stroud has created is dense and alive – but there’s material enough here for two stand-alone novels.

The novel also contains some odd bits of prose so jarring and lumpen that I had to re-read the sentence several times over to get the gist of what was being said:

Alistair also didn’t know he was currently being watched. His watcher was an immobile figure lying deep within a Brer rabbit-thick and litter-strewn hedge. Immobile that is except for the eyes that tracked Alistair. It would indeed be hard to see this man, swaddled as he was in camouflage clothing.

The first few chapters especially are so awkwardly written that reading them felt uncomfortable. Equally odd was the fact that the names of the towns supplying Swansea with its drugs are substituted with the word ‘[REDACTED]’. The novel isn’t framed as a police report and nothing else is withheld from the reader, so the gesture seems pointless.

Despite the odd mangled sentence, Stroud is a decent writer, and his writing grows with confidence as the novel progresses. Many chapters open and close in true thriller style, with camp dramatic foreshadowing:

He was going to go to university with Maggie and everything was going to be alright. Everything was going to be alright. And that should have been the first sign that it was all going to turn to shit.

I enjoyed these moments best because it seemed the writer was really enjoying himself, as though he couldn’t resist hamming up the drama. I also liked his imaginative metaphors – ‘It was five o’clock in the morning, summer’s-gone cold.’ It doesn’t roll off the tongue and yet you understand the atmosphere he is trying to convey.

But the novel is strongest when it bares its teeth: ‘The late-comers drove yet another 4x4. This one was resplendent with bull bars, at just the right height for moving cows and killing children.’

The Dead City Rollers is pure entertainment, but its strength lies in a backbone of searing wit and social commentary. The novel is fiction but the problems facing Swansea – drug addiction, poverty, joblessness and a largely ambivalent ruling elite – are very real. Without giving away too much, I love how Alistair, as an ‘undesirable’ member of Swansea society, is contrasted with the ‘good’ of society – and shows them to be anything but.

Alistair is the best thing about the novel. From the word go I could see him in my mind’s eye – well-meaning, not too smart, just trying his best with the hand that life has dealt him. Alistair is unnervingly familiar, a mishmash of so many people I grew up with that had the potential to be so much more than they were and achieve so much more than they did. He is a patron saint for misspent youth – for everyone that grew up in a dead-end town without opportunity. His desire to escape his situation is the only pure intention of any character in the novel, and I found myself rooting for him.

Whilst the characters of Alistair, Brogan and Pastor Morris especially are drawn very well, I did find Maggie a bit generic as the redemptive figure in his life. We are given very little of her backstory, and are told nothing of her inner world. The same is true of the only other significant female figures – Emily goes from an innocent barman’s daughter to ruthless gangster’s moll in the space of a flashback. Trish shows a little moxie but is eliminated early on, consigned to the role of victim. In the future I’d love to see Stroud explore his female characters with the same level of depth he affords his male ones.

There is a moment in the novel where Alistair explores Bristol for the first time, and marvels at how different it is to his home:

It was cleaner than any place Alistair had ever been. The people were enthused with a life and colour that was somehow missing from Swansea […] Alistair had felt seriously out of place.

This passage hit home for me. Loving the landscape you’ve grown up in but knowing that there is nothing left there for you is difficult. This is the inheritance of so many young people who grow up in Swansea or the Valleys, or any other British town with little industry and fewer prospects. Despite this, two of the penultimate chapters close with the line ‘For everyone there is always hope’ and for me this stands as a mantra for the entire novel. For everyone who is born into a dead city there is always the hope of escape.

All in all, this is an impressive first novel. The Dead City Rollers is richly imaginative and full of heart, and what it lacks in polish it makes up for with guts. I hope that Stroud has many more stories for us yet.

Ffion Lindsay is a writer and Comms Planner for tech startup Sparkol. She’s currently working on an app that helps businesses tell stories, and blogs about narrative theory in her free time. @Dedaleira


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