Against a pre-Troubles Belfast, Stewart Parker's posthumous novel shows one of the city's favourite sons discovering what would become a seminal writing voice

Stewart Parker’s Hopdance is autobiography under the banner of novel. We follow Parker’s alter-ego Tosh through life as an early-1960s undergraduate in Belfast, drinking, writing, chasing girls, and occasionally learning too.

Except there is something wrong, badly wrong, with Tosh’s knee. The problem builds, entering almost every conversation, until the inevitable separation. If the first part of Hopdance beautifully captures Belfast – and especially the university/student scene of the era – then the second focuses on his coming to terms with life after the amputation of his leg, courtesy of a rare form of bone cancer. This was, as Lynne Parker writes in the foreword, ‘the vengeful disease that would eventually take his life [in 1988]’, but the young Parker refuses to allow the disability to define him.

‘That’s hard lines, son’, says an old man in a corner bed after the bad news is broken. ‘They’ve took away he’s leg’ says an urchin who wanders in from another ward later after the limb is gone. Even amid despair and the throes of phantom limb syndrome, a ‘quarter of him’ gone, Parker brings Belfast life to us with authenticity and warmth – and via a most magical ear.

Everyone who knows anything about Stewart Parker knows he got the biographer he deserved in Marilynn Richtarik. Through Stewart Parker: A Life (2012), Richtarik had already shone light on this neglected time of Parker’s life, prior to his academic sojourn in the United States, his Irish Times music column, and the eventual lift-off of his playwrighting career. She has edited this novel/memoir with the utmost care and brought it into being via a terrific Lilliput Press edition.

Like his intricate and incomplete poetry, Parker’s prose is sometimes over-packed with dense, complex wordplay and verbiage. There is a bustling energy which betrays his fluidity. He allows his admiration of James Joyce to get the better of him. Passages are deliberately broken and experimental. They don’t work, but are part of Parker discovering his own writing voice.

Some of the best writing in Hopdance – as we might imagine – is the dialogue between Tosh and his friends/girlfriends. There was a reason he found his way into drama. He was a man in search of a form, and though the theatre is one of the hardest of the arts, it suited his range and grasp of voices.

One of the main characters is Harrison, who we know from Richtarik’s superlative biography is based on the late (and underrated) playwright Bill Morrison. It is Harrison/Morrison who sees a winning upside to the loss of Tosh's leg: ‘You can get drunk quicker now. The blood doesn’t have as far to travel, right?’

Though discovering his vocation, Parker’s prose is always sprightly and never flat. In one description of a hospital reception area in a working-class Belfast surgery, ‘An old man’s lungs groaned and hirsled in a struggle for more soiled air. A blubber faced baby on the massive knees of his mother sat opposite’. However, whether ‘the inmates are searching for a job or a cure or a loan or a spouse, it is not job cure loan or spouse that they’re waiting for. They’re waiting to see if they’re going to fall into the pit and be swallowed up, or avoid it one more time’. Parker felt imprisoned by his physical condition, referring to feeling like an inmate more than once. This acuity of description, and the ordinary life which accompanied it, became the foundation stones of his drama.

Stewart Parker with nurses

Parker in 1961 (aged 19) with nurses from the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, after the amputation of his left leg

We also get a sense of what Belfast was like. On Sundays, then, as now, ‘he could hear the hounds of heaven in the park, a tinny evangelical baying and barking and the whine of hymns, drifting across the damp grey air into his back yard’. Rain is the definitive climate, accompanied by a student radicalism slightly unimpressive to him. Tosh finds himself questioned – as Parker would be later – for his lack of political allegiance (at that stage innocently entwined with membership of the Labour club!). As with Jimmy Ellis’s recently-published memoir Troubles Over the Bridge, we are in that other country of pre-Troubles Belfast: light change in the air, but nothing approaching the fire on the hill less than a decade away.

Parker saw the good and bad in his city. We have its life but also its spite. Tosh’s brother buys him a radio when he emerged from hospital as a gift for his recovery. It is stolen by some local thieves, representing ‘A heavier blow that it should be…He felt the inconsolable weight of his brother’s love, and an unreasonable, relentless guilt for the loss of the radio. It should never have been left on the fire place, in full view of the window’. Parker loved Belfast life, but never sentimentalized it.

Richtarik has unearthed an extraordinary coda-essay, written October 1 1966, where Parker states that literature can ‘liberate people from the prison of the character which they have created for themselves. Literature should bring its reader to a crisis; he should confront his own invented character, and rebel against it.’ Now there’s a line for Northern Ireland’s cultural warriors to chew on.

This posthumous novel of a favourite son of Belfast, who put into words what so many of us love – and sometimes hate – about it, is as essential as they come.

Hopdance is published by The Lilliput Press and is now available to purchase. Marilynn Richtarik will deliver a talk on the book at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on Saturday June 10 as part of the Belfast Book Festival. Tickets are priced £6. Find out more here.