As Harper Lee, The Stone Roses, or Sam Raimi will tell you (and that’s a dinner-party I’d like to attend), it’s not easy following up a cultural touchstone. When your debut strikes a chord with a wider public and becomes higher profile than anyone expected then there’s bound to be added pressure to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Chris McQueer’s short story collection Hings was just such a debut, one which found its way into the hands of people who don’t normally bother with literary fiction.
As with lain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and Alan Bissett’s Boyracers, Hings is a book with a reputation which spread in no small part by word of mouth, praised and quoted in the workplace and passed around the playground. It received mainly glowing reviews on sites such as this one, and in print, but so do many other books which don’t manage to achieve the profile Hings did.
In the age of social media such a reach can be more readily measured, with people posting pictures holding their copy on a variety of social media, often accompanied by messages professing that it’s the first book they’ve read in ages, a claim also made for those mentioned above. It feels as if Chris McQueer is reaching an audience outside of the usual Scottish literary scene in a manner not witnessed since Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love received similar attention in 2011. But now we get to find out if McQueer can follow Hings. That’s the question which inevitably arises with the publication of his latest collection, HWFG.
And breathe… From the welcome reappearance of Big Angie on page one, it soon becomes clear that those of us who loved Hings can relax, safe in the knowledge that normal service has resumed. To borrow from the book’s full title, Here We Fucking Go again. There are few other publications in which Kim Jong-un, Ian Brady, Nicola Sturgeon and Ayrshire’s original and best loyalist rock band, Huns & Roses, would all appear. In fact there are none, and when you throw in Santa, the FBI, a sentient moth, an interview with the legendary Shoe Guy, and an angel called Rebecca from Cranhill, you have a cast which is quite unforgettable.
McQueer’s stories are driven by his vivid and visceral characters. Individuals whose lives are rarely written about – mostly outrageous and often shameless. His growing army of followers can be reassured that these are further tales of the dark side of life – divine comedy so black that it’s often difficult to see. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is writing to be dismissed as simply sensational or an exercise in excess. Yes, HWFG is a riot of acid trips and urban myths, infestation, masturbation, crime scenes and keech, but it’s also carefully crafted. These accounts of everyday events, with twists you don’t see coming, are as tight as a drum, the writing lean, sharp and succinct.
People get jobs, lose jobs, find love, lose love, discuss politics, get haircuts, fight world leaders, and take part in game shows to make ends meet. To those who say that McQueer’s writing is for Glaswegians only, I would suggest that these are all narratives which are at their heart universal – it’s in the telling that they become something else entirely. McQueer’s is a wild world, but it’s also a weird world, and it’s all the better for it.
With HWFG Chris McQueer proves that Hings was no one-off, but only the beginning for a writer who appears to have found his voice immediately. It also shows evidence that he is growing more confident in his craft, often addressing the reader directly, making for a more immersive read. After two superb short fiction collections I can’t wait to see what he does next – no pressure! And to those who remain unsure, have no fear – Chris McQueer is the real deal.
You can hear Chris McQueer talking to Ali on the SWH! Podcast.