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.
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