There is one sense in which the pandemic lock-downs have been a good thing: for many who were sure they had a novel inside them, all those months at home provided the concentrated time to try writing it. One of those new novelists is the Glaswegian comedian Kevin Bridges, who is famed for his storytelling in his standup, and Bridges has already written a bestselling memoir. So I put my hand up to read his novel, but crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be too ‘Irvine Welsh’ – I’m talking use of dialect here rather than subject matter; I found the novel of Trainspotting just too hard work! So I opened the first page…
Ah’ve went that nauseous, lightheeded way, the room’s spinnin’ and their faces go aw blurred and distorted, pixelated tae fuck like when ye watch the fitba at Wee Steesh fae the work’s hoose. The Rage is overwhelmin’. Over-fuck-ing-whel-ming. The rage that ye only get when yer bird corrects ye in front eh everybody.
Oh Gawd, I went – but phew! This section is just four and a half pages long with liberal sprinklings of the c-word, after which we discover it was a performance piece for Declan’s creative writing class. After finishing it he realises he has ‘misread the room’, his classmates and tutor are rather aghast at his depiction of a young working class man having a breakdown.
Declan, who is in his early twenties, stacks shelves at the supermarket part-time and dreams of becoming a writer, like his idol James Cavani, who twenty years earlier had escaped their shared hometown to become a feted scriptwriter, actor and director. But there is a darkness in his head that battles to overcome his dreams. His pet labrador, Hector, and his best friend Doof Doof (whose real name we will eventually discover) and his mum who always worries for him, help to keep him grounded.
That night when he meets Doof Doof later in the pub, Declan is wired and boozed up already having needed a few shots to help calm down after the class, so when a group of hangers on of the local drugs baron start being rude to barmaid Georgie, whom Declan really fancies, Declan stands up for her and hits one of them, and he finds his card is marked. Even worse, one of this group is Jordan, who used to be Declan’s best friend before he turned to the dark side. Declan begins to descend into depression and paranoia at the thought of what they may be planning for him.
We turn our attention to James Cavani, who has reached the stage in his career where he’s getting fed up of doing shite blockbusters and all the press that goes with them just for the money. He’s on his way to London to promote his latest, when he gets the news that his younger sister is in hospital after an overdose, and he drops everything, knowing it could blow his future career, to return home to be with her and his family.
At this stage of the novel, it’s obvious that Declan and James should meet somehow, Declan could be the next James if he gets a lucky break. The question is how Bridges will engineer what happens next…
I so enjoyed reading this novel. It’s darkly funny, and very much reminded me of Christopher Brookmyre, who opened his debut novel, Quite Ugly One Morning, with the best scene-setting expletive ever, and a more sweary Iain Banks’ Stonemouth perhaps. But Bridges does have a wistful side, which gives a Gregory’s Girl flavour to the young mens’ friendships – which go all the way back to primary school in some cases.
I loved the character of Doof Doof. A few years older than Declan and his other friends, Doof Doof is greenskeeper at the municipal golf course, and he’s a philosopher manqué. A big reader, he absorbs everything, and will spout Kirkegaard or quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, talking plenty of good sense dolled up with philosophical bollocks. He’s great sounding board for Declan.
There is an amount of violence, and there is plenty of swearing throughout, but not too much Glaswegian vernacular to translate after those first pages. But this novel is more about the chaps getting on with their normal lives, about growing up, friendships and for Declan, finding his place in the world. This is not the world of Welsh’s Renton and Begbie, I haven’t read a novel with such engaging male friendships since Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful Mayflies. There is plenty of social comment in the story too with some deft observations on the state of the nation in Scotland, class struggle and mental health. This is well-handled in the novel’s hinterland, not overdone, letting the characters shine.
Maybe everything is tidied up too neatly, but I didn’t mind that, for Bridges writes an hilarious and memorable scene to see to that business. It means that you finish reading the novel with a smile on your face, and that’s not a bad thing. I do hope he writes more novels, for The Black Dog was really good fun.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Wildfire hardback, Aug 2022, 392 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.