“The Rotters’ Club” By Jonathan Coe

The 1970s are anything but smiley faces and bell-bottoms for a family facing adultery, racial turmoil and identity crises in post-imperial England.

Topics: Books,

Jonathan Coe’s novel “The Rotters’ Club” begins in a revolving restaurant overlooking Berlin in 2003, but it doesn’t stay there long. Within five pages, Coe has transported us to Birmingham, England, circa 1973.

There we meet the Trotter family in its natural middle-class habitat, its members gathered round the hissing “coal-effect fire” in their cozy living room, each engaged in his or her own pursuits. They are, variously, seeking love, knowledge, family harmony … or, in the case of Colin Trotter, the father, who is not at home, the preservation of their rightful place in a world on the brink of massive change. This change will shatter the quiet of the family tableau, blast all their expectations to bits and leave each of them to root around and reassemble the shards as best they can.

In the fractious era ahead, wholeness and certainties will not come easily to the Trotters and their friends and neighbors. Young will challenge old, labor will confront management, promiscuity will threaten fidelity, black will face white and demand to be recognized as its equal. The oppressed will rise up against their oppressors, prepared to fight hard and fight dirty. The oppressors, alas, will fight dirty, too. The old rules will not apply, the new rules not yet written.

All of this, of course, we know about the ’70s. But Coe shows it to us afresh through the experiences of several disparate denizens of industrial Birmingham in this ensemble coming-of-age story. Primarily, though, he shows us the era through the solemn, adolescent eyes of Benjamin Trotter.

Benjamin, the Trotters’ eldest son, attends King William’s school, a “direct-grant” academy requiring a test for entry but mixing rich with poor and, in one lone case, black with white. Benjamin’s father is “junior management” at Birmingham’s British Leyland auto plant, yet Benjamin’s own circle includes Doug Anderton, the worldly son of a Leyland shop steward; Philip Chase, a loyal dreamer whose father drives a bus; Claire Newman, a whip-smart young woman whose older sister, Miriam, worked as a typist at the Leyland plant until she mysteriously disappeared; and Steve Richards, the school’s star athlete, who also happens to be its only black student.

You Might Also Like

As Benjamin and his friends engage themselves in the task of negotiating adolescence on the rocky path toward adulthood, the culture is shifting beneath their already uncertain feet. They find their various releases through music, sex, sports, humor, but even these great unifiers insist on shifting and evolving before their very eyes.

Up ahead, their parents and elder siblings, too, are struggling to keep their bearings. Doug’s father, Bill, for instance, is fighting what he increasingly perceives to be a losing battle on behalf of his men on the auto assembly line. Philip’s father, Sam, is competing with his sons’ golden-tongued art teacher for his own wife’s affections. Benjamin’s sister, Lois, is coping with a deep personal loss foisted upon her by people anxious to make a political point.

To be sure, Coe’s ’70s are rough going, certainly not the whitewashed, bell-bottom-ogling, smiley-face version the sitcoms would have us recall. The road to parity is littered with losses, blood, violence, injustice and needless death. Good and bad are not black and white — or even neon paisley. The sins of the fathers are not entirely righted by their sons, but in many cases perpetuated, albeit conveniently redefined. And if this is true for the Trotters and the others in their world, Coe seems to be saying, it is no less true for the whole of British society, which is coming of age in fits and starts right alongside them.

Though Coe resolves many of the elements of his story — in some cases, perhaps, a bit too patly — he lets some of the larger issues dangle. But Coe may have his reasons for doing so: A sequel to the novel, picking up the action in the late 1990s, he notes in the book’s closing pages, is forthcoming. There, one imagines, we’ll find out what Birmingham’s next generation has to say for itself.

Our next pick: The neighborhood children target a fragile young couple in a mysterious campaign of harassment

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>