Glasgow and violence – writers have played no small part in making sure the two are seen as closely related. The 1935 novel No Mean City is perhaps the most infamous text, with its focus on the razor gangs of the Gorbals, but you’ll also find plenty of blood, sweat and tear-ups in the work of writers as diverse as Alexander Trocchi, Frank Kuppner, William McIlvanney, Louise Welsh and Denise Mina, and it’s a list which just goes on. In fact, it is not that easy to think of a Glasgow set novel which doesn’t reference the city’s reputation for being dark and dangerous in some form, and it has become increasingly difficult to find a writer with something new to say.
Michael J Malone’s latest novel, Dog Fight, does just that. Set against the backdrop of illegal underground fights, it is not simply about skelpings and square-go’s – cries of pain and the crack of bones, although there is enough of that to satisfy the most bloody-thirsty of readers. It also examines the reasons that men (and in this case it is men) are drawn to such a world – those on both sides of the ropes. Poverty, blackmail, threats of, and actual, violence are all understandable motivations to fight, but Malone also discusses mental-illness, self-punishment and the complexity of family ties. You may think that this is going to be a book where the good-guys wear white hats and the villains black, but there’s nothing as obvious as that. Motivations are complex, just as they are in real life, and outcomes are never certain. Malone may describe the extreme side of life, but the reasons people find themselves there will be familiar to many.
Local criminals are picking on the desperate to man their clandestine brawls, including those who have come to Glasgow seeking asylum, and men who are sleeping rough on its streets. The most-prized fighters are ex-armed forces, and they know just what to look for. The argument is that men trained to fight and kill but with little left to live for make the most entertaining and extreme participants, and with some fights being “to the death”, such individuals are sought after.
Kenny O’Neill is a Glasgow criminal whose brother, Ian, becomes involved in this world. Kenny has managed to get Ian work after he has struggled to cope with life-after the army, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ian’s change in fortune sees him wanting to help one of his fellow brothers in arms, Dom, who is also struggling with life as a civilian. His depression and bouts of rage has seen him estranged from his wife, and only occasionally seeing his son. Ian is determined to see Dom is looked after and that he has someone he can now turn to when things are at their most desperate. They hold on to their friendship and each other as no one else truly understands.
It is this relationship brings Ian into contact with those who organise the fights, and it means Kenny, an experienced Mixed Martial Arts fighter, is soon embroiled as well. He infiltrates the gang to save his brother and end the threat to others close to him, but he cannot deny that there is no small part of him which is looking forward to testing himself in the most unforgiving of arenas.
That’s the backdrop, but where Malone takes the book to another level is in the depiction of post-army life for Ian, Dom and others. Often left to cope with PTSD and related mental health problems, and returning to a society which has health and benefits systems which are structured in such a way that such individuals will inevitably fall through the cracks, it is completely understandable that some will struggle to cope. When Ian explains to Kenny how difficult it is to negotiate the forms and formality of the DSS it’s as damning as it is believable. It’s the weakest in society, the ones who need looking after but who are too often ignored, who end up at the extremes, doing what they have to to survive, and that’s at the heart of Dog Fight.
Michael J Malone has written a terrific thriller – taught, tense, funny and fierce, it races you through a world which most readers will be thankfully unaware. But, the sense of unease it leaves is more to do with the predicaments in which the characters find themselves rather than any actual violence. Those expecting a Glaswegian take on Fight Club will discover something much darker, and deeper. Dog Fight is a tale which is all too believable, and that’s the really scary thing.