The second novel by Every Time I Die frontman Keith Buckley is a short but brilliant book about what it means to let go of time. It follows Scale, published in 2015, and while it bears some stylistic similarities with that book, which centres on an indie-rock musician battling against his own ego, Watch takes the reader somewhere else entirely.
The story here revolves around John Harvey: a broken man, living in squalor and a state of permanent sadness following the death of his unborn child and the subsequent suicide of his wife, Zola. Harvey spends his days drinking at a bar named Brinks, and it’s here that he heads, one winter’s morning in 1987 after his wristwatch stops working. Rather than replace the battery, however, Harvey decides to give up on time completely, but in doing so he summons the ghosts of an extremely painful past, as he finds himself searching for answers to questions he can hardly bear to ask.
Over the next 140 pages, Harvey gets lost—both figuratively and literally—as he stumbles through a snow-storm that threatens to rob him of all sense of direction. At various points, he takes refuge in a bus shelter, follows a funeral procession, and—finally—finds his way back to his local bar. Exactly when each of these events take place is unclear, since they are spliced with recollections and imaginings of increasingly dangerous impact.
The doctor came out into the hall. John thought he looked too calm, a man who had the only answer needed. When the word “suffocated” seized the moment, it spread like cancer, infecting every second in a million-year radius. The balls scatter across the table. The eleven, thirteen, and fourteen balls hit the back rail at different spots and burst toward the front where the greasy man is standing, staring at John with wide eyes. The cue ball continues in a straight line, untouched by the random trajectories surrounding it like a ship traversing a meteor shower. Sun snuffed out, sky empty. John saw the doctor put his hand on his shoulder but didn’t feel it. The cue ball comes back toward John with the same force it had left him and along the same straight line. The twelve crosses the cue ball’s path behind it and speeds down past it just up ahead. John is conscious at the pinnacle of a deep grief.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, this constant switching back and forth between present and past might become confusing, but Buckley—a former English teacher—maintains complete control over the narrative, even as John Harvey loses grip on his own. In prose that passes from the poetic to the pulverising—often within the same paragraph—Watch plunges the reader into a hellish world of grief, guilt, and wholly destructive truths—a world where chronological time loses all significance, as memory merges with the present moment to profound and lasting effect.
Much like the music he makes with Every Time I Die, Buckley’s work is not for the faint-hearted. It’s brutal, frenetic, and at times exceptionally good. Watch is skilfully structured, and secrets are revealed in a manner which guarantees the reader’s sympathy for John, even as we learn of his own failings. Thankfully, there is humour here, too—not much, mind, but enough to lighten the mood of certain scenes. John’s conversation with a hardcore Kenny Loggins fan, for example, had me laughing out loud, hinting at the sense of mischief that underpins a lot Buckley’s lyrics for ETID.
Ultimately, though, this is a book about a man facing his demons, and how he goes about doing that. It’s a book which challenges the traditional concept of time, our understanding of it, and how that can both guide us and hide us from the truth. Watch is swift, compulsive reading, and Buckley is a bold and fearless writer, unafraid to explore the darkest recesses of the human heart, turning stones that have long lain hidden in the corners of the mind and picking through the dirt beneath.
Watch is published on October 4, through Barnacle/Rare Bird Books.