It’s pleasingly perverse that at a time when the predictions for the future of book publishing and selling are at their bleakest, 2012 is turning out to be one of those years that will remain long in the memory for Scottish writing. Iain Banks, Irvine Welsh and Ewan Morrison have all published books which if they are not their best ever, then they are very close to it. Jackie Kay’s Reality, Reality is a collection of short stories where the prose is as poetic as it gets, and I have only heard great things about Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs which comes out in August. Add to those a particularly strong short list for this year’s Scottish Book of the Year, and the publication of some vibrant first novels, and you have to say that if that sound is the clanging chimes of doom then writers are taking little notice.
Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal not only continues this run of great books, it underlines my original point with a vengeance. He has been one of my favourite writers since his debut novel Morvern Callar, but there has always been inconsistency in the quality of his work, often within the same book. There have been moments of genius, but also times when he seemed to lose focus, or perhaps try too hard to push boundaries. I love his second novel These Demented Lands but can understand those readers who find it overly obtuse and experimental. His third novel The Sopranos is arguably superior to Morvern Callar, but there are still problematic scenes where Warner seems to move from writer to voyeur, and The Man Who Walks is a novel without an end (although I’m willing to admit that may be the point).
2010’s The Stars in the Bright Sky was superb, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that returning to characters from The Sopranos carried with it a sense of obligation (similar to when Irvine Welsh revisited Trainspotting with the vastly inferior Porno). The Deadman’s Pedal takes Warner’s writing to another level altogether. This is an epic yet personal novel about Scotland, one which in other writer’s hands could have been terribly worthy and polemic, but Warner always puts character first. It is simply a joy from beginning to end and is the moment he moves from good to great.
Set mostly in the early 1970s, The Deadman’s Pedal is the story of Simon Crimmons, a young man who is first generation middle-class. His Second World War veteran father’s haulage business has been built from one lorry to a fleet, one which is set to take advantage of the decline of the railways, and this has allowed Simon a very comfortable upbringing. Leaving school early, against his parents wishes, he then adds to his father’s ire by taking a job with the very railway that Crimmons Snr has vowed to vanquish. Through the coming of age of his central character Warner manages to say more about a time and place than any straight reading of history could manage.
The setting is pinpoint accurate, avoiding the cliched Seventies references in favour of fine detail. Fashion, food and film are selected and described with precision which date the years specifically. The records talked about avoid the obvious in favour of the more obscure, such as Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets instead of Dark Side of the Moon, or Hendrix’s posthumous War Heroes. This shouldn’t surprise regular readers as from the first few pages of Morvern Callar it was clear that this was a man immersed in music, and who knows what is good and what doesn’t cut it.
As is always the case with Warner, this is a very sensual book, and you can smell the musk of Alex Bultitude’s damp Afghan coat and feel the electric shocks built up in the synthetic materials that Varie Bultitude wears. It should also be noted that by setting the novel once more in and around the Port, a thinly disguised Oban which features in many of his previous novels, he has single handedly turned it into one of the great landscapes in modern Scottish fiction.
The aristocratic Bultitudes go straight into the pantheon of unconventional families of Scottish literature. They boast centuries of history, with all that it entails, and live in a baronial home where deceased family members are buried in glass fronted graves. They are wonderfully eccentric and quite believable, a family with secrets to rival those of Iain Banks’ McHoans from The Crow Road. In fact there are similarities with that novel, except instead of focusing on the story of the wealthy family as Banks does, this is the story of the boy from town who makes their acquaintance. Simon is enraptured by the enigmatic and bohemian Varie Bultitude from the moment he sees her, and so are we. She replaces his first love Nikki in his affections with an unbecoming ease that reminds us of that time in life when such decisions are made with out too much consideration for right or wrong.
Warner effortlessly essays a hugely influential period in Scotland’s social and political history, one where the writing was on the wall for nationalised industries and when private companies were beginning to take over. The novel may predate Thatcherism by five or six years, but with hindsight it is clear how the latter part of the twentieth century was going to play out politically, both nationally and globally, no matter how strongly some of us would have wished it otherwise. Such inevitability is one of the most depressing aspects of history.
The prose is just beautiful at times. The scene where Simon’s train runs into a landslide which has brought a graveyard down with it is incredible, and it reminded me of why I love These Demented Lands so much in that it verges on the surreal. Similarly, Simon’s father’s tragic retelling of the drowning of comrades after the war was won in their own armoured vehicle is one which will stay with me. Warner manages to convey the confusion felt by his characters in certain situations, while never losing the reader. You have to do a bit of work, but it always pays off. Such detail also goes into the smaller moments which can be just as dramatic. The scene where Simon carries Nikki’s older sister Karen across muddy land captures a teenage boy’s lust, fear and confusion perfectly. You know this will be a moment that will live with him for the rest of his life.
Warner gives all the characters his close attention; from the seen it all barmaid who is the object of Alex Bultitude’s affections, to the lecherous Tory Willie Coutts. He is never afraid to make his characters do the unexpected, such as when Simon’s father fights with a possible employee who he feels has disrespected him. Such actions never seem out of character, they are flashes of a person’s make up that they try to keep suppressed. This has always been Warner’s strength, to make every one who lives between the pages individual. There are not many writers who could take a room full of railway men, all of them arguing the toss, and make every one unique.
It’s rare that when I finish a book I’m aware of having a huge smile on my face; I can think of it happening before only a couple of times, but that’s exactly what I had as I closed the cover of The Deadman’s Pedal. Warner has banished those niggling questions which I had about his previous novels to write one which is near faultless. I doubt I’ll read a better book all year, and I doubt you will either.