For most writers, their vocation comes early and undoubtedly. Not so with Sillitoe (Out of the Whirlpool, 1988, etc.): Everything in his childhood seemed to weigh against writing. Born in Depression-era Nottingham to a destitute working-class family (think D.H. Lawrence, but darker still), he could expect little from life beyond a job on a local assembly line. He failed several high school entrance exams, and at the age of 14 he was bright and curious, an avid reader, but with no particular drive or ambition. However, he did have an inchoate urge to see the world. This led him to the RAF and service in Malaysia as a wireless operator. Though he enjoyed the air force, he chose not to reenlist and was all set to muster out and continue drifting when he was diagnosed with that most literary of diseases, tuberculosis. Recovering in the hospital, he suddenly and somehow found his calling and began devouring all the great books he'd missed . . . and began to write. Upon his discharge, he moved to Spain and devoted himself full-time to literature. Eight years and four unpublished novels later, he finally found success as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were published to staggering acclaim. While all this is expertly narrated and makes abundantly clear the autobiographical roots of much of Sillitoe's work, the least satisfying element of this memoir is, paradoxically, Sillitoe himself. Perhaps it is his British reserve, but he allows us few glimpses of how the events of his life have adhered to his soul, so that, as a character, he seems flat and underrealized.
Such reticence aside, this is a fine and memorable work, a testament to the powers of literature to reshape a life.