Being Boiled: A Review Of Alan Trotter’s Muscle…

One of the joys of reviewing on these pages is that every now and again you are sent a novel about which you know nothing, and it doesn’t just take you by surprise but makes you rethink what fiction can do. That was the case with Alan Trotter’s Muscle and even having read it twice now I’m still not entirely sure what it is or exactly what I have read. Is it Samuel Beckett meets Mickey Spillane? Is it noir as imagined by Neil Gaiman? Is it Pinter and Bukowski having a tear up in a car park? It’s all of those things and so much more.

Usually I wouldn’t mention the cover of a novel, but Muscle’s demands comment. As you can see above it’s the back of a man so large he can’t quite fit, with a shiv held menacingly in his mighty fist. It’s an image which not only suggests the violence and visceral nature of the narrative you are about to encounter, but also hints at what else awaits. Trotter brings so many ideas, themes and influences to bear that mere pages struggle to contain them. In every sense this is a novel which is packing.

From the beginning, where two men calmly contemplate the death they have just witnessed, with a curious detachment similar to Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon considering a carrot, it is clear that this is not going to be a straightforward undertaking. The cover may scream pulp fiction, but the content is more Pulp Fiction, with conversations about minutiae, apparent McGuffins, graphic violence, and a language rich, ripe, and rooted in noir, all of which can also be found in Tarantino’s masterpiece.

Certainly the central characters of Box and ____ (who we have to assume is the titular ‘Muscle’, but who is never named) bring to mind that film’s Jules and Vincent, the philosophising hard men who menace with aforethought, but there are also heavy traces of other dangerous double acts, such as the aforementioned Neil Gaiman’s Vandemar and Croup from Neverwhere, or Goldberg and McCann from Pinter’s The Birthday Party. I’m sure you’ll come up with your own points of reference as that is one of Muscle’s many joys – it’s packed so full of allusions, none of which are overt, that it’s entirely possible – or rather entirely likely – you could ask ten different readers and they would all report back something new and diverse.

From the beginning Muscle appears firmly rooted in the tradition of hard-boiled fiction. This is a world of private eyes and late-night poker, broken hands and black hearts, which will be familiar to those acquainted with Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. However, as matters progress it places one foot firmly in the realm of science fiction. Box becomes obsessed with the ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘Weird Tales’ written by the enigmatic Holcomb.

During episodes which could be dreams, or they could be visions, but definitely influenced by what he has read, Box begins to contemplate some extreme ideas, including the possibility of time travel. His desire for an object (“The Spherical Oracle”) grows stronger as he imbues it with a significance that is difficult to understand. It is similar to the unspecified pipes in which Patrick Doyle places his hopes of a happy future life in James Kelman’s A Dissafection. I then started to read other Kelman references in Muscle, but began to wonder if that said more about me than Alan Trotter. And of course it does.

Because that is at the heart of what makes Muscle such a fascinating and involving read. By taking familiar themes, tropes, styles and genres Trotter holds a mirror up to the reader and forces them to consider their own cultural history, and what that brings to any interpretation of what they are reading. It’s almost interactive, and there was more than one time when I imagined I was _____, or at least filled in the blanks myself. Muscle is a fantasy novel, just not in the way you may think.

As Muscle progresses Box’s fantasies begin to morph into an unnerving, and intricate, reality. As with many noir narratives, when a happy ending is even hinted at you know things are about to take a turn for the worse. Through all of this it becomes clear that Trotter is examining not only the evil that men do, but their reasons for doing it. There is greed, pride, lust and many other deadly sins on show, but there is also boredom and frustration. Box and ____ do a lot of killing, and that includes time, waiting for their next assignation which often never comes. It’s no wonder that they embrace their work as it is at least a living.

I often write notes as I read through a book which I’m going to review and the final one I had for Muscle simply said, “Begin Again”, and that’s exactly what I did. The second time around I read deeper and got more than I had the first time, and different than I got the first time. You’ll get back from Muscle as much as you are willing to put in, but effort on your part is required and so it should be. Alan Trotter has written a novel for people who are in love with fiction, who are in love with reading, and if that applies to you then you are in for a rare treat.

Muscle is out now, published by Faber & Faber Books

*Beyond Good And Evil: A Review Of David Keenan’s For The Good Times…

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*A version of this review first appeared on the Books From Scotland website. Head there & sign up to their newsletter to never miss an issue.

As regular readers will know, David Keenan’s debut novel This Is Memorial Device was not only Scots Whay Hae!’s favourite book of 2017, but many other right-minded people’s considered choice as well. It announced his arrival as a novelist in such a barnstorming manner that you couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to follow it. Well now he has, and, as we should have expected, he does so with élan, subverting all expectations. His novel, For The Good Times, is set mainly in 1970s Northern Ireland (some memorable away days aside), slap bang in the middle of that none more euphemistically titled time, ‘The Troubles’. 

For those who lived in Ireland and the UK in the ’70s-’90s there are many of the familiar and widely reported touchstones – the H-Block prison and hunger strikes, the Europa Hotel (infamous as the most bombed hotel in the world), Republican & Loyalist groups known best by three letters, gun-fire at funerals, sectarian songs, balaclavas, bombast, and bomb-blasts. Keenan captures the time and place perfectly, not only with such knowledge and detail, but also using music, fashion, and other cultural references to great effect.

The story focuses on narrator Sammy and his closest friends, a group of young Jack the Lads who just happen to be running violent, and sometimes deadly, errands for the Provisional IRA and other offshoots if they’ll have them. Buying into the more extreme mythology of the Republican cause, these boys are playing dangerous games, with a desire to be the cock of the walk as long as that walk isn’t Orange.

Obsessed with the life and style of the singer Perry Como, and dressed in only the best of gear, violence is second nature to them justified by the belief that they are committing it for a worthy cause. To most they are seen as gangsters, thugs, and smugglers, but they have a strong sense of their own worth and shared identity. If Shane Meadows and Martin Scorsese collaborated on the film adaptation of Bernard McLaverty’s Cal then the script may have been something like this, walking the fine line between condemning, or at least demonstrating, the terrible effects of self-righteous violence, and romanticising it.

This may seem like a fairly straightforward premise but Keenan uses it to explore cultural mythology and memory, place, masculinity (toxic or otherwise), the psychology of gangs and groups, and the need for individuals to belong, but also stand-alone. Just when you think you have a grasp of what is going on and understand the essence of what you are reading, things shift just enough to discombobulate. This will not be unexpected to those who read his previous novel which showed a writer almost bursting with ideas – so many that at times what unfolded came close to being overwhelming.

For The Good Times is leaner in terms of ideas and style allowing the story and the characters more time and space to breathe. The result may be a more conventional narrative (it would have to go some not to be), but it makes for an equally satisfying read, if not more so. If you tried This Is Memorial Device and found it wasn’t for you then you should give Keenan a second chance. He’s too good a writer not to.

That’s not to say that he has dispensed with the literary flourishes altogether. There are songs, poems, and comic book stories, and not many other writers would have quotations from the aforementioned crooner Como, Aleister Crowley’s ‘The Master Therion’, and Friedrich Nietzsche. They may seem incongruous bedfellows, but all tell you something about what you are about to read. There are also séances, astral connections, perversions, and rumination on the nature of art, as well as further evidence that Keenan may have an obsession with mannequins.

All of these unexpected detours remind you that this is a writer who is pushing everyone involved out of their comfort zone. He is a player of games but with serious intent, and it forces you to ask questions about what is written, and how. In my review copy the numbers on the Contents page were all “00”. I have since found out that this isn’t deliberate, but with Keenan I wouldn’t have been surprised. With doppelgangers, the bureaucracy of institutions, betrayal, the power of sex, seduction and obsession, and the need to find an identity when others simply want you subsumed, it has clear echoes of George Orwell, Franz Kafka, John Fowles and Milan Kundera.

However, for all the artistry this novel wouldn’t work without the characters being believable, especially when they are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Keenan shows he has a keen ear for how people speak, but to do so in an accent other than your own throws in another ball to keep in the air. It’s always a risk to take on the voices of a time and place which is so infamous, but from the first sentence to the last the mask never slips, and you absolutely believe these are lives lived. He also understands how people act in their different groups, and how they think and act when they are alone. The bold and the brave versus the insecure and uncertain – this is a world where front can literally be a matter of life and death, and makes you realise that the time and place has been chosen for good reasons.

For The Good Times is a multi-layered novel of extremes set in the most extreme of times (it is also extremely funny). It plays with form and structure, yet, for all its sensational subject matter and style, it is a keen examination of the human psyche, offering hope which is as welcome as it is surprising. But more than anything else there is a truth at the novel’s core. Every sentence – every word – is there for a reason. Clearly written from the heart it will force you to reflect on the people and places which made you, for better and for worse. For David Keenan it is another magnificent, and memorable, achievement and cements his growing reputation as one of the finest writers around.

For The Good Times is published by Faber & Faber Books

David Keenan was a recent guest on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast which you’ll find here – SWH! Podcast With David Keenan.

Talking Books & Telling Stories: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To David Keenan…

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer David Keenan about his latest novel For The Good Times. After the success of his previous book This Is Memorial Device, (Scots Whay Hae!‘s Book of 2017), it was always going to be fascinating to see how he would follow it, but he has done so in fine style.

The two discuss the setting of Belfast in the ’70s, the personal connections Keenan has to that time and place, and the way language shapes the story. They also consider as diverse and disparate subjects as masculinity, magic, Modernism, sectarianism, Sufism, and song, and that only scratches the surface of their conversation.

It’s always a pleasure, and an education, to listen to David Keenan as there are few writers who talk with the insight, honesty, knowledge and passion about their work as he does. So make yourself comfortable and strap in – this is a podcast not to be missed.

You can read Ali’s initial review of For The Good Times over at the excellent Books From Scotland website. A slightly longer version will appear on these pages in the coming days.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

Our next podcast will be with one of the most exciting and inventive bands around at the moment. We’ll tell you who that is very soon…

Brace Yourself: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Crash Land…

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There are few things I look forward to more than a new Doug Johnstone novel. Over the last decade, beginning with 2006’s Tombstoning, he has produced a body of work which manages to be familiar yet absolutely individual, and has written thrillers which defy formula. Since 2011’s Smokeheads in particular it has felt as if this was a writer who had found his voice and a style which made him stand apart in a very busy marketplace. That style is literate and lean – Johnstone doesn’t waste a word in order to move the plot along. Legendary Motown Svengali Berry Gordy used to appeal to his songwriters, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and it appears Johnstone has a similar approach to writing.

Taking his eight novels to date as a whole, you can begin to see two distinct threads emerge which can loosely be divided into domestic/family noir, and more straightforward thrillers. His latest, Crash Land, is definitely in the latter camp. It’s a breathless tale of “boy meets girl – boy and girl flirt and drink gin – boy and/or girl crash plane”, and it will delight fans of Smokeheads, Hit & Run and The Dead Beat in particular as it is a return to the breakneck action of those books, where an unsuspecting individual gets embroiled in life-changing events which are mostly of other people’s making. Continue reading