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March 1999

Truth In Advertising: When you can judge a book by its cover

A review of Terry Taylor's book, Kicking Around

Kicking Around** by Terry Taylor. Black Swan, 1999. It’s a pleasure to come upon a book which actually lives up to its backcover billing. Terry Taylor’s new novel, Kicking Around is touted as “gloriously funny,” which sets the bar high for what’s inside. But Taylor’s knack for extracting the humorous kernel from even the most quotidian husk makes this a wonderfully entertaining read. Kicking Around is aptly named. Set in the lounges, classrooms and athletic fields of a small English town in the fifties, the reader is treated to a bit of sport here, an amusing anecdote there, linked by a few common characters and the author’s unfailing generosity of spirit. Although the novel doesn’t quite hang together as such, Mr. Taylor puts together a charming assemblage of short stories and vignettes which are appealing in their own right. Tim Armstrong, the young protagonist we follow through assorted harrowing episodes of adolescence, is the only thread common to the whole book. Sundry other characters - teachers, parents, siblings, friends, rivals, objects of desire - breeze through the pages like butterflies - distracting, delightful but insignificant. Taylor excels at capturing the innocent pleasures and terrors of youth: returning from an errand run for mom without the item sent for (in this case custard creams) or the swelling pride of winning the weekly merit badge at school. We are also given a good sense of Tim’s ingenuous good intentions, his appealingly quirky sense of humor, penchant for tossing in high-minded historical and literary references whenever possible (and occasionally regardless of relevance), and his absolute devotion to sports of all kinds. Still, we’re never given a glimpse of the deeper complexities of his character. The Bildungsroman structure serves more as a convenient framework on which to drape Taylor’s colorful narrative patches. Although the stories are arranged chronologically, there is only a cartoonish sense of Tim’s actual maturation. A glaring example of this crops up early in the book, when the fabric of Tim’s close-knit family is frayed by his mother’s sudden death. Yet, with one or two exceptions, there are no subsequent references to this loss, which would surely have a profound influence on any boy of 12. We never hear about the pain or emptiness, the fears or disappointments in Tim’s life. Everything seems to come out sunny-side up. But that optimistic radiance is also an essential element of the book’s charm. ‘All’s well that ends well’ is the reassuring, if trite message. Taylor rescues his hero from moments of classic classroom embarrassment, athletic-field defeat or social ostracization with a kind word, a pat on the back and a carefree off-you-go-again. No festering neuroses or battering inferiority complexes allowed in mid-century Northern England it would seem. English sports - rugby, cricket, polo - consume most of Tim’s, and therefore the reader’s, attention. For the uninitiated, it makes for an awful lot of scrums, ruggers, cassies and greens, but Taylor works his comic magic on these, too. The cornucopia of similes and metaphors Taylor treats us to is extraordinarily bounteous in its imaginativeness and variety. We read of crinoline, swept up like "frozen ripples of meringue" and of a demonstration chemistry lab resembling “a sort of funereal Punch and Judy booth.” Kicking Around is a welcome debut from an author of talent and promise. We have every reason to hope that Mr. Taylor will treat us to more of his cheering and endearing tales in the near future.

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