“When he is at his most horrible this book shines the brightest” – A Ton of Malice by Barry McKinley

A Ton of Malice (subtitled, ‘The Half Life of an Irish Punk in London’) takes us through a few months in the life of Barry, an angry twenty-year-old punk who moved to London for a relationship but has now lost his place in the shared bed to a yoga instructor from France. Barry has managed to blag his way into a high-flying job at Sellafield Nuclear Plant. He is also a heavy-drinking, cocaine-inhaling troublemaker who has no idea how to treat a woman nicely and isn’t averse to occasionally nutting a rival. And, if the blurb is to be believed, almost all of this story is true.

Whether or not it is factual becomes less important once you actually start to read the thing. Because it is often bloody hilarious. An early scene in which Barry conveys a memory of a sexcapade with a Bob Dylan lookalike is cheek-wettingly funny, and scenes of such quality will show their face at regular intervals throughout. As a comic writer, McKinley is highly skilled.

If this book is going to be compared to anything, it will likely be Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Focusing on a drug addled chancer with the potential for another type of life, the similarities are obvious from the opening pages. Add to this the fact that A Ton of Malice, like Trainspotting, is written is something more like a series of vignettes than a traditional narrative arc, and you can see how the comparisons become unavoidable. Both novels also shine a light on the difficulties of youth culture under the Thatcher regime. However, perhaps the one thing that lets McKinley’s book down is that the narrative arc that he does try to weave through his work is never as successful as the one presented by his Scottish predecessor. The failed love story that ties A Ton of Malice together is slightly weak and predictable, and the work as a whole might have been better without it.

Any Cop?: Despite the one minor criticism above, McKinley’s debut is a very enjoyable read. At times a horrible character, Barry elicits sympathy because he appears to be a product of his past and the times he finds himself living in. In all honesty, though, it is the times when he is at his most horrible that this book shines the brightest.


Fran Slater


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