One of the best things about being an editor and a teacher is seeing an author you’ve worked with launch their book. This has just happened with Where’s Sailor Jack? I worked with John Uttley as a developmental editor on this novel, but please don’t think me partisan. Anyone who has read my work as a literary critic will know that I’m a straight shooter when it comes to good and bad writing. Where’s Sailor Jack? is a pleasure to read, and a great debut from a meticulous writer. I love this book simply as a reader, and I’m very happy to see it in print.
Where’s Sailor Jack? is by turns romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga. Like its hero, Bob Swarbrick, this novel is charming, charismatic and complex, and reminds us that not all contemporary fiction has to mirror Hollywood, with metrosexual twenty-somethings charging about solving impossible problems. Where’s Sailor Jack? is measured and thoughtful, with a strong plot, believable characters, and an intelligent moral centre. I’m wary of labelling, and ‘boomer lit’ is a bit of a catchall these days, but if like me you won’t see fifty again then you will really relate to this novel. Uttley cannily keeps three generations in play, but his core characters are nearer the end than the beginning and thus look back as much as they look forward, still trying to figure it all out. One of the many questions the story asks (and answers) is will there be too much baggage when Bob’s ship comes in?
Bob is an engineer. He’s a working class Northerner made good, and his origins place him always slightly outside the professional class to which he now belongs. He was inspired by the cultural revolution of the late-fifties and early-sixties, and although he did well out of Thatcherism, his roots have left him with a rebellious scepticism in which corporate greed and leftwing intellectualism are held in roughly equal contempt. Since the failure of his first marriage he has been unable to sustain a serious personal relationship, and still carries a torch for his ex-wife, Jane (a feminist academic who steals every scene in which she appears). His best friend, Richard, is an investment banker with enough doubts about his profession to return a bonus. He now regrets his decision not to enter the church as a young man, although his wife is far from convinced that Christianity holds all the answers.
Now nearing retirement, Bob and Richard are working together for one last time on the flotation of a clean energy start-up company. Against this backdrop, Bob is offered two chances for love, one new, one old, while Richard’s apparently idyllic marriage is sorely tested. And all the while, in many different ways, major and minor characters search for some sort of meaning to their lives, from faith to politics to love, all of them in one way or another trying to answer the question the book’s title asks, ‘Where’s Sailor Jack?’ (Bob’s late father): Where do we go when we die?
There’s an honesty about the dilemmas and challenges these characters face, with a real insight into human relationships that brings an emotional depth unusual in modern mainstream fiction. What’s also unusual is that female characters are as strong and well realised as the men, while the philosophy of the narrative never gets in the way of a cracking story. The novel is never preachy, allowing different world views and inviting readers to decide their own answer to the book’s question. Either way, there is a fundamentally uplifting message, whether taken as Christian or simply Humanist and Existential.
John Uttley’s debut novel reminded me at once of reading Graham Greene on faith and Graham Swift on aging, with the sexual honesty of John Updike, the range of a John Irving family saga, and the quirky British humour of Nick Hornby – in fact, in many ways, Where’s Sailor Jack? is a High Fidelity for the original baby boomers. And the subplot about the flotation is a fascinating insight into investment banking by an author who knows that world very well. So forget about Christian Grey and find out how the real business millionaires live, with all the same doubts, fears, highs and lows as the rest of us. An utterly delightful book.
And you can visit the author’s website here