The second novel by Every Time I Die frontman, Keith Buckley, is a short but brilliant book about what happens when you’re forced to bear witness to the events of your past. It follows Scale, published in 2015, and while it carries 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… somewhere far more terrifying.
The story here revolves around John Harvey: a broken man, living in squalor and a state of inconsolable 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, smashing the watch and destroying all the other clocks in his house. But in doing so, Harvey inadvertently summons the ghosts of an extremely painful past, as he finds the answers to questions he’s spent most of his life trying not 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, at least to John Harvey, since they are spliced with recollections and imaginings of increasingly damaging impact.
Watch is swift, compulsive reading, and Buckley is a bold and fearless writer, unafraid to explore the darkest corners of his characters’ minds. There were so many things I loved about this book, but it was Buckley’s handling of the switching between present and past that particularly impressed—something he does while keeping the reader very much in the moment. In one brilliantly written scene, Harvey watches in awe as a young hustler makes a break on the pool table, even as the maelstrom of his own memories threatens to topple him:
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 tenses 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 just about secures the reader’s sympathy for John, even as we learn of his own terrible 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 as I read it on the metro, hinting at the sense of mischief that underpins a lot Buckley’s lyrics, while in an earlier scene, during the aftermath of an aborted threesome, Harvey is forced to confront the truth that excessive cocaine use does not necessarily reduce the size of a man’s penis.
Ultimately, though, this is a book about a man facing demons of a much less visible kind. 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… until it can’t. As such it’s one that I highly recommend.
Watch is published on October 4, through Barnacle/Rare Bird Books.