Two boys, a girl, some booze, a baby, a schmoozing literary blowhard, booze, squalor, benefit fraud, and did we mention booze? Alan Warner’s latest has inherited more than one gene from at least three of its predecessors – Morvern Callar, The Sopranos, and the lesser-mentioned but still, we think, very worthy (and Booker long-listed, lest we forget), The Stars in the Bright Sky – which makes it pretty damn good: an exuberant, witty, profane and poignant take on friendship, jealousy and desperation in the heart of Thatcher’s pinched Britain.
Wanna-be writer Douglas Cunningham is a Scottish kid on the lam in London: he’s dropped out of his degree program – reading and writing are one thing, but exams another – and is kipping each night in A&E waiting rooms because he can’t afford a place to live and doesn’t want to go home. Llewellyn ‘Lou’ Smith is recovering from heart surgery and living in a council flat in Acton with his fiancé, the sometime model Aoife, and their baby, Lily. Douglas, of course, moves in with Lou, grows infatuated with Aoife, becomes the live-in babysitter and Lou’s partner in literary crime. They fall in with an exploitative publishing guru who offers them ill-paid grunt-work, while they drink and fail to write their magnus opi; and Douglas pines over Aoife, while Lou gets it on with her best friend, the exhibitionist Abby. Midway through, Lou and Aoife get hitched, and their cut-price wedding reception is one of the best set-pieces we’ve come across in a long time (we’ll mention the stolen carpet, but you’ll have to buy the book to find out more). When Lou takes a job away from home, leaving Douglas and Aoife together, well – no spoilers, but you can join the dots.
It’s not a very plot-driven book, and what story there is (will they/won’t they write their books/have affairs/fall out) is relatively predictable, drawing heavily on the coming-of-age romance/thwarted ambition affairs we know so well. Nevertheless, this is just a jumping off point: from a relatively slow start (it’s hard not to sigh when you meet a nineteen year-old writer character, is all), the book leaps into the fast lane. Warner’s strength, you see, isn’t so much in plotting – and that’s not meant as a slight, because his plotting is fine, honestly – but in dialogue and characterisation. His descriptive powers – always superb – are at their best when they’re applied to the type of squalid lifestyle that his heroes and heroines inhabit (and this particular trio certainly live it up in squalid fashion), and what he does even better is take that grim misery of poverty and unhappiness and difficult families and heartbreak and imbue it with an almost transcendent beauty. You don’t read a Warner novel and think, there but for the grace of God, you read it and think, God, yes. Even the ending (seriously, no spoilers), which has been criticised elsewhere as a cop-out for not resolving everything, is an honest one: when’s the last time your tortured love story wrapped up ever so neatly?
This book has all the acute humour and honesty of The Sopranos, then, with all that book’s acute observation of burgeoning and toxic friendships, halting sexuality, and its character’s tentative (and ill-considered) leanings towards self-actualization, but it’s also got the more obvious observations of economic depression and political impotence that you’ll recognize from Morvern. Lou’s sour Thatcher-baiting adds of a bit of scene-setting and humour that locates it very precisely in time, and London itself is very well-sketched: we get the back-streets of the West here, not the City nor the West End, and, as you’d expect, Warner’s council blocks give Roddy Doyle’s and Ken Loach’s a run for their money. What’s particularly note-worthy, though, and what you’ll likely take away from the book, isn’t the setting or the plot, but how he brings Douglas, Llewellyn and Aoife to life – no mean feat, as we say, since he’s hampered himself with a pair of Withnail-alike ne’er-do-wells, and it takes some doing to lift that hopeless-arty-loser stereotype and craft a pair of memorable individuals out of them. Lou, in particular, is a triumph: while Douglas narrates his wry, malcontented way through the book, Lou is his loud-mouth sidekick – a man who’s marrying out of necessity, can’t stand his lowly part in the world and can’t seem to work his way free. But rather than acting simply as the foil for Douglas’s (slightly) more refined sentiments, Lou – absent from the story for significant periods, and a liar and a cheat, with a temper and an alcohol problem, not to mention a not-insignificant terror of death – represents the emotional heart of the book; he’s flawed, but humanly so, and while Douglas is, at best , opportunistic, it’s Lou who’s truly flailing and truly stuck. Warner’s managed to take an apparently arrogant and heedless show-off and humanize him so that even despite Lou’s adultery and violence, his impatience with his child and his petty bitterness about Douglas’s (again, slightly) more developed literary career, he’s never the out-and-out villain.
Any Cop?: Oh, yes. We could go on and on. A fantastic character study with masterful dialogue and descriptions – and it proves (unlike, ahem, The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven) that Warner doesn’t have to stay in the Port to show us how it’s done.