by Magnus Mills
160 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Magnus Mills is one Britain's best kept literary secrets. His first novel, The Restraint of Beasts was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and whilst his subsequent novels have garnered critical acclaim, popular success seems to have remained elusive. Considering how accessible and enjoyable Mills' writing is, it is a crying shame that his strange, witty books have not received more recognition.
The Maintenance of Headway is Mills' sixth novel and focuses on the working life of bus drivers in an unnamed British city. Much was made of Mills' own career as a bus driver when he made his literary debut and it is clear that his own experiences on the buses have filtered through a distorted lens into this novel.
The job of a bus driver, it seems, is a fine balancing act of adhering to an inflexible timetable whilst coping with all the hazards and minor annoyances found on British roads. Whilst it is acceptable for a driver to run a few minutes late, we are repeatedly informed, it is a cardinal sin for a bus to arrive early as this runs against the doctrine of headway – that is, the correct time that elapses between buses arriving at stops. Charged with maintaining the correct headway between buses are the Inspectors. The bane of the average driver's life, the Inspectors have the power to redirect a bus, transfer passengers to a different vehicle and to issue penalties to drivers who consistently run early.
As in Mills' other books the main theme is the conflict between the rigidity of working life and human nature. Whilst the department of transport demands that the buses run on time, the drivers try to run slightly ahead of schedule in order to extend their precious tea breaks by a couple of minutes. Like the feckless labourers Tam and Richie in The Restraint of Beasts, the narrator and his colleagues make work avoidance an art form.
Mills' writing is short on description and deceptively simplistic. Although there is a lot of dialogue, many of his characters communicate with an air of detachment that adds to the slightly off-kilter feel of the stories. Lazy journalists have resorted to that terrible word Kafka-esque to describe Mills' works, but whilst the two writers share the same distrust of bureaucracy, Mills is a far more light-hearted and humorous writer. I've always felt that early films of the Coen brothers such as Blood Simple and Fargo are closer in tone to Mills than the brooding stories of Kafka.
The subject matter might seem mundane and some may question how a book about driving a bus around in big circles can be entertaining. Those who have sampled the strange delights of his previous works will know that Magnus Mills is a writer who can somehow imbue the most commonplace incidents with an eccentric, sinister wit. Running at just over 150 pages, Mills' latest novel is not a lengthy read. Doubtless, there are folks out there who will grumble at having to pay full price for such a lightweight read but The Maintenance of Headway is a delightful read whilst it lasts. You'll never look at the simultaneous arrival of two buses the same way again.
Hereward L.M. Proops