Dead Air by Iain Banks
Phew! Life turned out to be busier than anticipated this week, but I managed to finish reading my third Iain Banks book for my #BanksRead2021 this morning. Now for a quick review!
Dead Air, alongside The Steep Approach to Garbadale was one of the two mainstream novels by Banks that I hadn’t previously read. It’s also one of his weightier ones at 408 pages in a chunky hardback. But is it weightier in tone too, given that it’s touted as a) a thriller, and b) Banks’s 9/11 novel with its provocative cover featuring an aircraft over two of the Battersea Power Station towers?
The Protagonist of Dead Air is Kenneth Nott, (born McNutt) who is a shock-jock at a commercial radio station in London. It begins on September 11th 2001, Ken is at a friend’s wedding reception in a loft apartment in the East End. Just as Ken and friends start to have fun by throwing things over the balcony onto the abandoned car park below, phones start ringing and they turn the TV on to see the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in NYC.
This gives Banks, through Ken, the opportunity to discuss the tragedy, on and off air, and to rant at great length about this and anything else Ken and his producer, co-conspirator Phil want to take pot-shots at. Their politics is real lefty, socialist, libertarian and very ranty; they enjoy taking down all the right-wingers that ring up during their phone-ins. Ken is constantly in trouble: for the things he says, with the establishment, with his bosses, with his listeners who listen to complain, with most of the world it seems, except for his coterie of friends and those of his listeners who get him.
One of those last is Celia, ‘Ceel’, whom he meets at a party hosted by the station boss.
Her hair was gathered up, full and shining, immaculate. It was the colour of heroin.
He falls for her instantly, and she says she’ll be in touch. Amazingly she is, having a hotel room key couriered to him – and they begin an affair. It has to be very secret, always in hotel rooms when her husband is away, Ken mustn’t leave a mark. Ceel is an enigma, and Ken is hooked. His own girlfriend, Jo, is now regularly out of the country with the rock band she’s working with, they’ve been together nearly two years, longer than Ken’s previous relationships, you sense an itch there.
Turns out that Ceel Merrial is a serious gangster’s wife, hence all the precautions, but Ken can’t resist sneaking her phone number onto his mobile. When he actually meets John Merrial one day, the man gives him a business card and he puts his number onto his phone over Ceel’s. You can imagine what will happen. Ken has not yet grown out of his rock’n’roll lifestyle of drink, drugs, clubs etc, and drunkenly leaves a message for Ceel – on the wrong number…
Alongside the relationship drama, a TV channel is interested in putting Ken up against a right-winger in a debate, and someone is sending him death threats and slashing his tyres.
Obviously, Ken’s politics are really Banks’s – published in 2002, this novel came out around the time that Banks cut up his passport, and ranted against Tony Blair. Ken feels like Banks’s alter-ego in wish-fulfillment mode. The political debates between Ken, Phil, his callers and friends are always passionate, articulate, full of irony, “Guns for nutters only; makes sense.” Ken loves the sound of his own voice too much though, and it makes the narrative drive a bit flabby. The whole side story of the on-off TV show dilutes it further. Ken is an A1 asshole in the mould of Martin Amis’s John Self from Money, but somehow retains that edge that makes you still like him underneath.
I did want more thriller and gangster drama, less politics and a hundred fewer pages. That would have made a stronger, less indulgent narrative. But, for all its faults, I did enjoy this one and it obviously helped Banks get some stuff off his chest! (7/10)
Source: Own copy. Little, Brown hardback, 408 pages.
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