Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’
by Alistair Braidwood
There are many ways to start a novel, but surely one of the most arresting of recent times can be found in Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’, which opens:
‘like rebel angels, bright, restless, sensually attuned to the flux and flow of mortal Falkirk, Belinda our chariot, our spirit guide, the wind rushing up and past her face thrust against it like some wide-o Helen of Troy.’
Straight in. Nae messin. It puts me in mind of an early Springsteen lyric, if The Boss had been brought up near Callender Park, Falkirk rather than Asbury Park, NJ. The novel doesn’t relent in the pace set by this opening gambit, at least not until near the end when reality starts to invade the Boyracers lives.
I mentioned last month that there are similarities between Gordon Legge’s ‘The Shoe’, and Bissett’s debut. Both deal with the lives of a close group of friends as they make the transition from school to whatever comes next. Re-reading ‘Boyracers’ made me realise that the main difference between the two novels is to do with pace, both of life and in terms of writing. There may only be 12 years between the two novels, but they seem further removed from each other than that.
The reason for this can be found with the respective groups. Until I compared the two I had forgotten just what a difference a couple of years can make in your teens. 15-16 year olds’ lives tend to be very different from those of 17-18 year olds. In Legge’s book there is a sense of what has been left behind, and the characters are being pulled towards adulthood and all that threatens to entail. Their hopes and dreams are already being dashed. ‘Boyracers’ pull is from the other end of the teenage spectrum. For them the stronger pull is from school, as Alvin, Brian, Frannie and Dolby find themselves desperately holding on to the lives that they need to leave behind. This is classic teen angst material, as poignant as ‘The Last Picture Show’, ‘American Graffiti’ or any John Hughes’ movie. The group are being threatened with disbandment but don’t want to face this fact, so live their last days together at breakneck speed to avoid impending reality.
There is no plot as such, just time spent with the boys as they drive the streets of Falkirk and the surrounding area and dream of escape (some with more intensity than others), football, favourite movies and music, and girls. There is a natural energy that occurs when they are together, with Frannie bursting into song or Dolby criticising the group’s respective cultural tastes, although they escape relatively easily when compared to other characters that they encounter. That is how people are judged, and this jury is a harsh one. Watch the wrong film, listen to the wrong tunes, and your dead to them.
Music and popular culture are hugely important to the dynamic of this group, placing it not only alongside ‘The Shoe’, but also ‘Morvern Callar’, ‘Trainspotting’ and John Niven’s ‘Kill Your Friends’ in the novels featured here in the past few months whose characters, and authors, show similar obsessive tendencies. The excitement that is felt, for instance, at the prospect of a new U2 album is brilliantly captured and reminds the weary and cynical just how important music is to a teenage fan.
The scene where they argue over the respective meanings of Deacon Blue’s ‘Dignity’ and ‘Wages Day’ is typical of the varying levels of banter. When Alvin claims that ‘Progress is a capitalist myth.’ Brian retorts ‘You’re a capitalist myth, ya c**t!’ and the cracks that are beginning to show, and which will eventually lead them in different directions, are made clear. Even their arguments, although they are about so much more, take place in a pop-cultural context. What gives this scene a cinematic quality is the fact that ‘Wages Day’ is playing on the car stereo as the argument progresses. Is it an attack on capitalism or a simple celebration of payday? You can decide for yourself:
‘Boyracers’ is not really a typical Scottish novel. It owes a lot to American writers such as S.E. Hinton or even Kerouac. Kerouac crossed with Kelman perhaps. But most of all I think it owes a debt to American cinema, both in terms of the character’s tastes and the overall feel. Frannie rates women in terms of ‘Star Wars’ characters (a spectrum which ranges from Princess Leia to Jabba the Hutt), Dolby is stunned when he meets a girl who has never read an X-Men comic, and Alvin’s reading material is ‘The Great Gatsby’. There are plenty of more localised references, but American cultural rules rule, and I feel that the spirit of the novel also feels American, in the best possible sense. It seems to me that Bissett is an optimist, and that is incredibly rare amongst Scottish writers. If you feel that’s harsh then please name me another five. I can think of two. Yes, there is the storyline about Alvin’s dysfunctional family, but the reader is always sure that he is heading for better things. The hope, for once, isn’t false.
Scottish books for teenagers are, as far as I can tell, few and far between. Scottish literature in Scottish schools is still under represented, and after you’ve done ‘Sunset Song’, a bit of Burns, Liz Lochhead and/or Edwin Morgan and, if you are lucky, something a bit more modern, you’re considered to have done well. If anyone wants a suggestion as to a book for older school kids, Scottish or otherwise, then I propose Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’ as he manages to avoid the cynicism of his contemporaries, while never being less than honest and entertaining. The book’s central characters are living lives that are recognisable to most young people; and to those of you who remember what that time was like, and those who have forgotten, this is a book to bring a knowing smile to your face, and an ache for your own salad days.