The best friend I ever had that I never met died two weeks ago in London, England.
Alan Sillitoe was 82 years old. He wrote more than 30 books, novels, short stories, poetry, travel and children's stories. The obituary mentioned only his first novel, "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1958) and his initial short story collection, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner."
I met Sillitoe in 1966 through those two books, while sprawled across a barracks bunk in Texas. A new friend and fellow 'freedom fighter' from Compton, Cali, NWA territory you all (sorry, I fell into my young poser speak for a sec), tossed "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" at me.
"Quit readin' all that lame detective s*** and try this guy. These white folks remind me of you," he said.
At the time, I was basically a read-for-entertainment guy. Sports Illustrated, Sherlock Holmes, maybe a little Hemingway and Steinbeck, but not too much. Too serious, you know.
Sillitoe became my first "serious" author. If you aren't crazy about my scribbling you can probably at least partially blame Sillitoe. He made me want to write.
Bobby from Compton was right. I immediately identified with the English working-class folks in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning." Loneliness was more of the same. His people were angry but not insane with it. They hated authority but didn't mind working for a living -- they simply wanted a fair wage.
Americans, back then and now, generally hate to admit that we are a class society, based less on schools and parents than England, but classified (primarily by money and status symbols) all the same.
I was from a family where a dislike of the rich (feelings I didn't lose until I lived four years in Sun Valley and became close friends with a couple heirs and heiresses to millions and discovered these two folks at least were more like me than different, just richer) was built in. My father inculcated me with class feelings. He often took the family from our crowded little half of a duplex for weekend drives into the land of Cincinnati's old money hoods, where the gatehouses were bigger than where we lived.
He never advocated violence. He just wanted us to see who really kept us down.
Bernie Madoff, Kerry Killinger, Cheney's Halliburton and George Bush's good friend Kenny Lay at Enron would have pleased my dad no end if he'd lived. They proved his point.
Sillitoe made some of the same points in a smarter, more entertaining way. He also created real people who weren't barons, princesses, killers or cops. I knew immediately he was telling more truth in fiction than any working-class political tract writer ever had. Educating and entertaining. He created stories about people I felt I knew. Mothers with too many kids and no money. Fathers with lousy jobs. Kids with more time on their hands than places to go. And yet most of his characters were vital and funny. They weren't beaten, just down.
I was hooked.
Sillitoe continued writing for years. I don't know how well they did in England, but his books stopped being published to acclaim here. He faced the riddle of many successful writers who wrote about folks without money or status, I think. He kept trying to write about the folks he grew up with while living in the Kent countryside and in places like Paris.
But once, between 1958 and 1970, he opened imaginative doors to entire worlds for me and thousands of others around the world.
Two wonderful films were made from his first two books, too. Albert Finney, young and actually virile looking then, played protagonist Arthur Seaton in the filmed version of "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," released in 1960. Sillitoe got screen credit and the movie is a great place to start if you want to understand a time and a place that has been altered beyond recognition, not to mention Albert Finney who looks totally different than the old character actor who was so good recently in "Big Fish" and "A Good Year."
Time is brutal and Finney's older face, like mine for that matter, proves it.
I envy some of my smarter younger friends their youth and opportunity but I'm glad I came of age in the '60s when there was genuine hope about changing things, and new worlds to discover in books like Sillitoe's.
I'll miss him and wish now I'd written him at least one fan letter.
He was good and he's gone and even if it's not remarkable when old men die, it's still, to me, too sad to ponder without a big glass of red wine.