Being funny on the page is notoriously difficult to pull off. There are good reasons most comedians don’t write comedy novels, or at least good ones. If they do write fiction it’s often to show their serious side (Rob Newman, Alexei Sayle and Stephen Fry being three of the best), or they are just not funny (Ben Elton). The most successful books by comedians are nearly always autobiographical, which says much on many levels. The writers which make me laugh the most are all writers first – Hunter S Thompson, Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams and Chris Brookmyre, to name just a few.
Although Chris McQueer made a name for himself on the spoken word circuit, he is undoubtedly a writer first and foremost. Hings is his first collection of short stories and before we go any further I can report it is funny. Properly, laugh-out-loud, funny. However, as you read you realise there is more going on.
As Ewan Denny suggests on the cover (see above), the influence of Limmy and Irvine Welsh is apparent in Hings, but more the former’s Daft Wee Stories and TV show than Trainspotting, and it is all the better for it. There are many who have tried in vain to recapture the lightning in a bottle which was Trainspotting, including Welsh himself, but it’s so much better for any writer to go their own way, and that’s what McQueer has done in some style.
There are other comparisons to be made as the stories unfold. There is surrealism similar to The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay (‘Alan’s Shed’ & ‘Pat’), the black, but never bleak, humour of Agnes Owens’ Gentlemen Of The West, (‘The Dug’ & ‘Scudbook’) and even the easy and sudden violence that can be found in the fiction of William McIlvanney (‘A Fistful Of Coppers’). I’m sure you will make your own connections, but what unites the stories, and makes this a true collection, is McQueer’s voice which is irrepressible and undeniable as his style and irreverent sense of humour is evident on every page.
Hings is unapologetically a Glaswegian collection. As locals will know, for many it is a city of samurai swords (no doubt bought from the infamous Victor Morris), bowling clubs (see ‘Bowls – the longest, and best, story in this collection), ex-footballers driving taxis (‘Fitbaw’), Buckfast chilling in the freezer (‘Sammy’s Mental Christmas’), and lives chronicled in the real-crime magazine The Digger. There are scams (‘Pish The Bed’), dodgy clams (”Sammy’s Bag Of Whelks’) and overage bams (‘Top Boy’). No doubt some readers will find the scenarios extreme, but many others will nod in recognition.
The importance of these stories should not be overlooked. McQueer is writing about people and places which are at the best marginalised, more often ignored. It’s the real reason that Welsh’s Trainspotting was the success it was. Of course it’s a well written riot (and also a short story collection, by any other name), but it depicted an Edinburgh rarely, if ever, seen on the page before. And, more importantly, it portrayed people never written about before. You could make the claim that Chris McQueer is doing something similar for Glasgow. Places such as Springboig, Shettleston and Easterhouse are seldom painted, don’t have songs written about them, and almost never appear in fiction unless as the punchline to a lame joke. It’s refreshing to read about them from a writer who is clearly not a tourist, but who has genuine affection for his characters and where they live.
Short story collections can be hit-or-miss affairs, but with Hings the last story is as strong as the first. However, there are three standouts which should get special mention. The aforementioned ‘Bowls’, which chronicles the unfolding of a beautiful friendship between two women, (and which suggests that this is a writer who has longer fiction in him). There’s ‘Lads’, which is a love story to lift the lowest of spirits, and ‘Posh Cunt’ which manages, in only five pages, to say more about class division and family than many writers will ever manage. Chris McQueer may claim he’s only having a laugh, but there’s more going on here. Funny that.
Here is Chris reading one of the stories from Hings, ‘Shiftswap’: