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Sunday, 10 February 2008

Buy Fresh

A lot of attention was given to the Scottish Book of the Year winner, A L Kennedy, for her novel, Day, and I am sure deservedly so, but I never heard a peep about the Scottish First Book of the Year: Mark McNay's Fresh.

Canongate, the publisher, very kindly sent me a copy to review last week which they described to me as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich set in a chicken factory" and who could resist a description like that? McNay has acknowledged in interview the Solzhenitsyn novel as a starting point, but that is all it is which is perhaps why he didn't jump at "One Day in the Life of Sean O'Grady" as an obvious title. The great Russian is not his only influence; the book also tips its hat to the work of fellow Scot James Kelman with its realistic presentation of a Glaswegian accent.

I found the book a fast read, probably because of the amount of dialogue, though I could imagine someone sitting and reading the whole thing in one session; it's definitely a page turner. And, since my last post on swearing prompted many comments, I thought following up with this book review would be most appropriate; the book is positively teeming with swear words.

Some reviewers refer to "the wacko plottings of Frank Cotterell Boyce [or] Irvine Welsh" but personally I can't see it. The plot is straightforward: it tells the tale of two brothers, Sean and his elder brother Archie, who have been brought up by their uncle Albert and his wife Jessie in Royston, one of the rougher areas of Glasgow, following the death of their mother. There are two story threads, the main one, told in the third person, relates the events of a single day in the life of the adult Sean, the day his brother is unexpectedly released early from prison; the second thread, told in the first person, recounts the history of the two brothers.

The environment in which the two boys are brought up seems at times barbaric. When Sean is bullied at school his uncle takes both brothers down to their local pub and provides them with a first hand demonstration of how to deal with difficult people by beating up a man who owes him ten pounds:

     It didnay take long for the fireworks to start. It was raised voices and pointing at each other. Ah could see McGrory's face get a bit red. Then he flung a right hook and Albert ducked, took the hook on the side of the head and got two digs under the guy's ribs. Then he was up, two lefts into the face followed by a hard right and the guy went down like a sack of shite.
     McGrory went into a wee huddle on the floor and my uncle gied him a few hard boots in the guts. Where's my fuckin tenner? he shouted.

The next day Archie beats up the boy who had been bullying Sean:

     That's how you deal with bullies Archie said as he wiped Sammy's blood off his forehead. Just attack the cunts.

McNay does not shy away in presenting life in the raw. This is accepted, even expected, behaviour in areas like Royston and Springburn. This is how they deal with others and how they talk to each other. Readers of delicate sensibilities should consider a Jane Austin instead of this.

At first Sean is somewhat in awe of his older brother but as they grow older Archie falls in with a bad crowd – actually he becomes the bad crowd along with Sammy the boy he beat up to protect his brother. The pair of them begin dealing in drugs and Archie co-opts his brother as a driver. Sean is, of course, happy for the extra cash to impress his family but, when he gets pulled over by his old school pal, now a policeman, he realises that he has to make a serious decision about the direction his life is taking. Archie's decline continues unchecked. He winds up in juvenile detention at first and ultimately in prison leaving his brother holding a thousand pounds till his return.

Sean is far from perfect though. He is not a rich man and has a weakness for gambling which lands him in financial trouble. He earns a living working for minimum wage in a chicken processing plant – he works in the 'Fresh' department, hence the title of the book – and when he finds he needs money to keep up appearances with his family he dips into Archie's money to the tune of seven hundred pounds which he fully intends to replace by working overtime not expecting his brother's release for another six months. Unfortunately Archie wangles an early release date by agreeing to be electronically tagged and Sean discovers he only has the rest of the day to come up with the cash. Sean realises what will happen when Archie returns and decides: "Ah couldnay live through that madness again." He is resilient though, doesn't panic and does his best to get the money together in preparation for a surprising – or maybe not so surprising – face-off at the end of the novel.

What is most interesting is the relationship between the two brothers. They are not twins but it is impossible not to consider Archie as Sean's doppelgänger. Archie represents what the future could hold if he lets his loyalty to his brother rule his life. Sean is a bit of a dreamer and there are several instances in the book where I wondered if McNay might not also be indebted to Keith Waterhouse and his comic creation, Billy Liar:

     Sean jumped up and down on the spot. Two-footed jumps alternated with little skips. Bum titty jump joggy bum titty jump joggy. After a period of warm-up exercises he started grunting through his nose and jabbing with his left. Jab jab jab. Then he moved on to the complete workout. Bum titty left left-right bum titty left left-right. The world champion was limbering up to take on yet another contender…
     He ducked and jabbed at the chickens as they passed him on the line. When a bird came he followed it down the line giving it left left-right. The bang on the fat breast had just enough give to make it feel like a human cheek. Sometimes the punch knocked out a bit of fat that looked like a tooth. Sometimes it was just a spray of water like the saliva from a punched mouth.

Archie beats up people. Sean beats up dead chickens. It says everything. It's tempting to describe this book as being about the loss of innocence but you couldn't call Sean an innocent exactly. He is a product of his culture. He is loyal to himself, his wife and daughter. Everyone else is fair game.

Although there is an underlying tension to the book, the story is leavened by moments of comedy, albeit dark comedy. It would be utterly impossible to write any book about Glasgow without there being humour in it. The banter between many of the individuals is very funny once you realise that much of the aggressive language is actually affectionate:

What the fuck are ye playing at?
The white cap went red and stared at his piece box. Albert looked at Sean.
     Did you see that?
     Aye he's a cheeky wee bastard.
The white cap looked at Sean like he was shocked. Sean gave him a wink but Albert caught him.
     Ya fuckin arsehole. Ah might have guessed.
The white cap smiled and so did Sean and Albert. Sean stood up.
     Ah'm goin for a fag. Are ye comin?

A 'piece' is Scottish slang for a sandwich by the way. The book is very faithful in this regard, but McNay manages to include a host of Scotticisms without his dialogue becoming so dense it is unintelligible to non-Scots. That lack of standard punctuation for the dialogue and some unusual spellings take a bit of getting used to but they're not a big issue. A glossary is certainly not included in the Canongate edition.

Non-Scots should not be afraid of this book. It provides a very believable presentation of a stratum of society that will be alien to most readers. It's a disturbing book, though, and it's its reality that makes it disturbing; people really live like this.

Recommended – but not for the fainthearted.

Mark McNay was born in 1965 and brought up in a mining village in central Scotland. After a failed electrical engineering course and fifteen years doing odd jobs, in 1999 Mark was accepted onto the renowned creative writing course at the University of East Anglia on the basis of a handful of short stories. He graduated in 2003 with distinction. Straight after this his novel-in-progress caught the eye of an agent and won him a UK Arts Foundation Prize before it had even found its way to the top of the slush pile of eventual publisher, Canongate. He currently lives in Norwich, working with people suffering from mental health problems.

McNay is now working on his second novel, the protagonist of which suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder.

You can find interviews with the author at Slushpile, Books from Scotland and You Tube.


Shelly said...

That's a good review, Jim. I will plan on reading Fresh, but will do so when I can give it real attention (not right this moment, as I leave next week to start a 3-month language course in Shanghai).

The book will present me with an environment that is foreign to me. I always love a read that gives a good picture of a place I don't know, even if it is a disturbing reality.

Thanks for the pointer!

Jim Murdoch said...

Then my job is done. Canongate have just reprinted the book with a nicer cover showing two wee Scottish boys, much better than a headless chicken.

Conda said...

Yes, I second Shelly, this is an excellent review. I especially enjoy reviews that don't just tell what the book is about (too common) but also give a taste of the experience of reading the book--which is what you've done here, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Conda. I didn't really intend this to be a book review site but when I come across something that I think hasn't got the attention it maybe deserves it seems the right thing to do.

I've been reading a lot recently about the arguments for and against on-line book reviews and, as always each side can present evidence to substantiate its claim. I've read reviews for years – books, films, CDs – but I can't say, until I sat down to write one, that I thought about whether they were good, bad or indifferent or what exactly about them motivated me to check out the particular book or film or CD.

I think the bottom line for me is a genuine enthusiasm for the item being reviewed. In that respect the critics are probably right that the internet leans towards positive reviewing but, to be honest, I'm not really interested in reading negative reviews. I certainly have no intention of reviewing every book I read on my website – that's what I use Goodreads for – but if something particularly moves me then I'll go for it. To be fair to those critics who have to work in newspapers and magazines, most of them have limited space whereas I can waffle on to my heart's content. I'm not sure I could have done as good a job had I only 500 words to play with.

I was in Waterstones yesterday actually and there at the front door was a display with copies of Day on it but I had to search for Fresh, no special display just a wee note from a staff member recommending the book, and I thought that was a real shame.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

Can't yet get the book here in the USA, not even on Amazon. Hmmm....

As to book reviews, I write them on occasion for a technical publication, helps me get really expensive books for free on occasion. Also nice to play with the 500 word limit, hones down the concentration into the essentials to communicate.

I went to a lecture book presentation unveiling a few years back and I was so enamored of the author's presentation on his topic that I requested of the publisher a comp copy of the book to review. It was not fiction, about the historic preservation business from an architect with a focus on adaptive re-use of old structures. Well, the book itself was the confused, obtuse jumble of name dropping and this ant thats... by the Dean of the Columbia University historic Preservation program, no less... that I was in a real quandary what to do as there was no way I could write an untruthful review, and I had got the book for free, I had asked for it... and if I wrote what I actually thought I would likely get black balled in business... I ended up bailing and never writing that review.

I will write a negative review of a book or a movie if I come across one that I think is viciously dangerous and a harm to human life and sanity.

Mel Gibson's bloody Passion of the Christ was such a danger to me that I wrote as how I could see all of the sexually oppressed tween boys in the basement of the Baptist church would be subjected to the movie and there would subsequently be an uprise in cat and dog mutilations. I felt I could say that seeing as I had been in that basement and it was hard enough to endure without movies like that.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well Gabe you can be reassured that the Dean of the Columbia University historic Preservation program is now on my black list.

BTW Fresh is available on Amazon USA - try just typing in the name. I've sent you an e-mail with a link either way.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

I found Fresh and ordered it. Thank you.

The academic world can be a strange place. Dean of the Yale Architecture School is renowned for his modernist additions to historic sites... one being the tourist center/research library at Mark Twain's house in Hartford, CT... anyways I once attended a fashionable preservation conference, invitation only, in Newport, RI. The sponsor of the conference was a Scot-American organization whose sole asset was a Chagall valued at $6M. The intent was an interface of Scot & American historic building specialists with an exchange study program. Our exchange seemed to center with the trades from the Scottish Lime Center on the subject of imbibing of single malt while sitting at night along the cliffs of the shore and watching the Atlantic. But I digress, the famous architect/Dean was the keynote speaker. He rambled on for quite some time and when it was all over with the gist of what he seemed to be expressing is that all old historic buildings should be torn down and replaced with his new designs. I later asked him for his e-mail address but he was warned off before he gave it over.

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