The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?
Dr Emmet Brown, Back to the Future
For many the first introduction to the DeLorean sports car with its unique gull-wing doors was in the legendary 1980s movie Back to the Future. Inventor Emmet Brown uses the striking car as the basis for his time machine which allows Marty McFly to travel back in time to 1955. In Gull, Glenn Patterson uses his own kind of magic to take the reader back to 1981, when car designer John Delorean opened a car factory in Belfast during the height of the Troubles. What follows is no less fantastical than Back to the Future and as Patterson says at the opening of his colourful novel
I made this all up, apart from the bits you just couldn’t
In 1973, the enigmatic DeLorean left General Motors to set up his own company with the vision of creating the DMC-12 – an affordable sports car built from stainless steel and featuring those distinctive gull-wing doors. That he brought production of his futuristic car to Belfast (‘East Berlin without the laughs’) was probably as amazing as time travel in 1981 and Patterson tells the story of the rise and the eventual fall of the DeLorean car company through the eyes of Randall, DeLorean’s American fixer who oversees the Belfast plant and Liz, a working class Protestant woman who gets a job at the factory.
It’s a clever narrative technique to keep the mysterious DeLorean at arms length. Throughout the novel, he remains elusive, always travelling somewhere, always leaving and arriving with his glamorous wife on his arm. Patterson doesn’t try to define him, rather he explores the effect that DeLorean has on those around him. Charm was always DeLorean’s trump card and it’s captured perfectly in Gull. Randall describes him as if he
…moved through a different medium, or was being shot on a different sped, to everyone around him
While DeLorean has often been seen as a con-man (the cocaine bust, the bankruptcy), Patterson portrays him as a dreamer, a visionary who will raise the stakes as high as they need to go to see his car come to life, even if that leads him unwittingly into an FBI sting that will ruin his reputation.
The other characters are painted in broad strokes, but when a story is this surreal, I don’t say that as a criticism. Randall and Liz bring the story back to earth with small human touches and Patterson’s depiction of Liz’s struggle to stay in work despite the disapproval of her husband and the pride she takes in her work is touching. She delights in her surprising escape from housework and dinner, making friends with her unlikely co-workers and eventually taking so much pride in what she has achieved that she hides a message inside one of the completed cars – ‘I Made This’.
The change that comes about in Liz’s life, due to her job at the factory, is indicative of the hope that DeLorean’s investment brought to the whole of Northern Ireland at a time when it was greatly needed.
Glenn Patterson has always used the social history of Northern Ireland as the backdrop for his work and the story of Gull is as much about Northern Ireland as it is about the DMC-12. Belfast in 1981 was a grim place. The Troubles were at their height, in particular tensions were high due to the hunger strikes and employment was hard to come by. It is difficult to imagine now what the DeLorean investment meant to the people of the city
Three hundred jobs in the initial building phase, twelve hundred jobs when production began, rising eventually to two thousand, in one of the most economically depressed parts of Belfast, a city whose only notable contribution to the auto industry was the invention of the pneumatic tyre a hundred years ago
Patterson doesn’t allow the Troubles to dominate the narrative – the fall out from the hunger strikes is seen through the eyes of the workers at the plant who kept it from being destroyed and is also explored in economic terms in the willingness of the British government to continue to invest in DeLorean’s bottomless pit.
The actual production of the car is explored with wit and a great deal of humour. The interviews for the positions at the plant are amusing and the launch of the prototype is a moment of pure slapstick comedy as the vehicle is not so much rolled out as pushed. The hope that powers the cross community workforce to get production off the ground cannot hold though and the hints that all might not be well prove founded. The car is overpriced, the market stagnant, the British government are twitchy about continued investment and those iconic doors don’t always work.
Johnny Carson got his car. Johnny. Carson. Got. His. Car. A week more and he had been going to tell them he would hold on now for the hearse model: at least he was guaranteed one ride in it. It broke down the first time he took it out. Pressure regulator. The dealer had to rush a spare out to him and fix it at the side of the highway
It is the beginning of the end for the Delorean motor car and finally only 9000 cars were made before production was halted a mere two years later. The Gull of the title could refer to DeLorean himself, to his workers or to us all, everyone who gasped in delight at that car, those doors and the dream it promised.
He ran a finger along the model’s undercarriage, pressed something…pressed again, a little more firmly. A portion of each side of the car rose up slowly, coming to rest finally in perfect symmetry, like the wings of a bird riding a current. ‘There are your doors,’ DeLorean said. That was it for Randall; that was the moment the flame was lit. It flickered at times; it was all he could do at others to protect it…but it never, ever, until the very end, went out.
It would seem that the DeLorean dream hasn’t entirely gone out as, in yet another twist to this strangest of tales, it was announced last month that the DMC-12 is going back into production this year.
It’s hard to completely dislike DeLorean despite the FBI sting and everything that followed. Glenn Patterson has woven a warm and witty recreation of the most bizarre of tales – capturing both the small details of the human lives and the sweeping political and economic backdrop against which they played out. His writing is both bravura and intimate and has an ease and intuition that makes Gull a very specific, yet very universal tale. As Randall says
What was business, but telling – and selling – the best story?
With Gull, Glenn Patterson has done just that.
I have a signed copy of Gull to give away to kick off Reading Ireland Month!
Simply comment below or retweet this post to be entered to win! The draw will be open until 5pm on Friday!
I was given a copy of Gull from the publishers through Net Galley in return for an honest review
Photographer John Baucher is based in Northern Ireland and his new exhibition ‘It is Nothing New’ opens at the Imagine Festival on 14 March