Those who have read David F. Ross’s first two novels The Last Days Of Disco and The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas will approach his third with anticipation, excitement but also a little regret as it promises to be the closing part of his “Disco Days” trilogy which means no more Max Mojo, Bobby Cassidy or Joey Miller and no more music from Heatwave Disco or The Miraculous Vespas. But put aside those fears for now and rest assured that if The Man Who Loved Islands is to be their swan song, they are leaving the stage in some style.
This is a more mature book than the other two in both content and approach. Having previously been taken back to the ’80s we are now in, or are at least quickly approaching, the present day, aside from some timely flashbacks to explain how we got here. While once the main characters had their life before them, for the most part full of promise and potential, Ross now concentrates on them as 50-something men reflecting back on their lives and finding them wanting.
The Man Who Loved Islands examines the enduring nature of those defining friendships that you can count on one hand. The ones which are as much part of you as any family bonds, and perhaps more so. At the centre of events are the two central male friendships in Bobby Cassidy’s life, and when taken together they are an astute commentary on a recognisable character in Scottish culture – the west-of-Scotland male, somone who is loyal to a fault but also quick to take offence. These are individuals for whom harsh words and perceived and received slights are not easily forgotten or forgiven.
Ross has a forensic eye for detail which makes what he writes ring true. When commenting on the ageing process Joseph Miller looks at himself and notes, “His skin, his teeth, and – bizarrely – his fingernails have all degenerated as if his body was a squalid apartment recently acquired by Peter Rachman.” It’s a typical Ross sentence. That third detail about the fingernails is exactly the sort of extra element that many other writers would miss, relying on the more readily known and clichéd observations. It is then finished with a darkly humorous flourish of the sort this writer seems to have to spare.
In the first part of the book matters jump between present day and the previous decades, with Bobby and Hamish “Hammy” May’s time in Ibiza particularly well observed. It may resemble Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ video at times; all tans, teeth, statement t-shirts, espadrilles and extended mixes, but if you were there, or near, that was what it was like. A large part of this exactitude comes from the writer’s encyclopaedic knowledge and love of music which he uses to get time and place spot on. As with the first two novels music is as much a character as any person.
The Man Who Loved Islands opens with a quote from The Jam’s ‘Thick As Thieves’, and it strikes me that Ross writes like a storytelling songwriter, managing to relay times, people and places in paragraphs and chapters rather than verse and chorus, but the result is the same. I keep thinking of how Springsteen tells stories about specific characters, more often than not from small towns, in his songs, and if The Last Days Of Disco was Ross’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, then The Man Who Loved Islands could be seen as his Wrecking Ball. Those who haven’t read Ross yet may see this as a stretch, but I can’t shake the feeling that he is more influenced by his record collection than by any novelists, and it shows. And it works. The reason that music means so much to the central characters is because it does to the writer, and once more he includes a playlist as an appendix which makes for the perfect accompaniment while reading.
There are less of the japes, scrapes and one-liners that are to be found in the earlier work (although pleasingly they are not jettisoned entirely), but they are replaced by pathos and poignancy which is bound to accompany the passing of time. There are also sections here which catch you by surprise such as Joseph’s writing on the nature of Chinese democracy (the political system, not the Guns ‘N’ Roses album), the cult of the “Blood Oranges”, and Bobby and Hammy’s brief but successful musical career, but you are never allowed to forget what is driving the novel – the characters and their determination to put right past wrongs and do right by those who they love and who they hope still love them.
The Man Who Loved Islands is David F. Ross’s best novel to date, but it also offers the promise of even greater things for the future. This is a writer who is improving with each book. Here, the sentences are tighter, the jump from character to character and between time periods is clear, the humanity at the heart is never lost in the plot, and he even makes what should be an unbelievable event seem perfectly plausible. But his greatest achievement is to have characters grow old in a manner which is not just believable, but recognisable, empathetic and moving. They are clearly still those boys and girls we met in the early ’80s, but, as with all of us, growing up and growing old hasn’t been as easy as they once thought it would be.
The launch of The Man Who Loved Islands will be at The Admiral Bar in Glasgow where Ali from Scots Whay Hae! will be in discussion with David F. Ross before a book signing and a night of great music:See you there…