'these lone territories'
Warner apparently started writing his latest novel before his debut Morvern Callar but put it to one side and returned to it every now and then over the next two decades. John Burnside did something similar with the novel that was eventually published as A Summer of Drowning and I'm intrigued by the idea that writers might begin a work that they don't have the maturity or experience to carry off immediately; but by refusing to be rushed and returning to it at a later date they turn failure into triumph and produce some of their best work. I haven't read any of Warner's previous novels but some critics have suggested that this latest is his most ambitious and satisfying. With nothing to compare it to I can only report that it is indeed wonderfully written, exceedingly ambitious and a pretty good bet for the literary prize lists this year.
In the Highlands of Scotland during the early 1970's, sixteen year-old Simon Crimmons has reached one of those forks in life. His parents want him to remain at school but he wants out. Too young to work in his father's haulage business he nevertheless wants to work just about any job in order to pursue his desire for a motorbike that will give him independence and the chance of some kind of escape from the Port. There's also his fledgling relationship with Nikki, a series of trysts in various locations whilst both of them dream of a hotel bed and some privacy to indulge themselves in physical intimacy. It is the misreading of a job description that leads Simon to his job on the railways ('traction engineer' being nothing to do with broken bones in the hospital as he presumed) and it is within this environment that Warner is allowed to develop his substantial themes.
Simon's father (an Englishman) is a self-made man who has afforded their middle-class lifestyle through the growth of his road-haulage business. Already furious at the idea of his son not continuing his schooling he is naturally disgusted that he should then consider working for his biggest competition, ie. the railways. These opposing positions are the first of many, Warner manages to cram an awful lot of politics and social comment into a book that never feels as though it is shoving its arguments down your throat. The subtlety with which he does it is in direct contrast to the weight of the themes discussed: railways/transport, nationalisation/privatisation, Nationalism/Union, work/privilege, youth/old age. James Robertson's weighty And The Land Lay Still may have a broader scope and cover a longer period of Scottish history but Warner achieves something of the same definitiveness in his portrait of Scotland at its own forked road.
One area in which he is particularly skilled is dialogue. Not only is he naturally brilliant at capturing the idiomatic speech but in the group of railway workers he creates great set-pieces of banter, character and argument. When we first meet these many voices near the novel's beginning they are a confusion of new characters and it is hard to keep track but by the time Simon meets them at his job interview they have resolved into a hilarious collection of competing comic swipes. It is a hilarious scene in which Simon is mocked for his age and inexperience (the whole 'traction' confusion actually helps win them round) but one in which he shows some of his pluck and intelligence and manages not to drown. The old boys network usually refers to graduates of private schooling but this group of old boys are just as exclusive at the other end of the spectrum; close-knit, suspicious of outsiders and wary of Simon's youth and middle-class credentials.
He is slowly accepted however, in contrast to the speed with which his father drops him, and builds a close relationship with one driver in particular, John Penalty. It is he who carries one maxim that relates to the novel's title, the deadman's pedal being the one that puts the break on if the driver falls asleep, requiring constant pressure to keep it active - 'Keep your foot pressed on the deadman's pedal through life and you won't go wrong, son'. Penalty also has a great story about the perils of cheating and jamming the pedal down with something. The lazy driver may then find it might spring free at seventy miles an hour as it did for one driver - 'A Rangers-Celtic game was on. First time in history the lot of them were all hugging one another as they went flying from one end of the fucking train to the other.'
I'm making it sound as if this is a book all about men and trains but Simon is a teenage boy and this is a coming of age tale so of course it isn't. I have mentioned Nikki already but it is the daughter of the local gentry who figures largely in his maturation. The Bultitudes have lived at Broken Moan for generations (an early chapter shows us the moment when the Queen herself came to visit) and Varie Bultitude is the almost supernatural catalyst for Simon's ascent to adulthood. He first meets her brother, Alexander, in Menzies dressed in a powder blue military long coat, walking 'with a louping gait, moving his head form side to side as if trying to hear some constant sound.' Their shared love of literature helps them begin an unlikely friendship but it is Varie that Simon becomes enthralled by.
She may ride horses and be studying geology but she is far less rooted than that might suggest, finding instead a fascination in tarot cards and stories of the occult. I mentioned her as almost supernatural and Simon indeed always seems to be under her spell. In one memorable scene when he cheats on his then girlfriend to kiss her, he thinks he may even have been bewitched when he breaks out in blisters (this it turns out only the result of his unknown allergy to horses). Their sporadic encounters lend the novel the risk and danger of being in a relationship with no equality, no foundation, the foot is off the pedal as they both freewheel onwards into the darkness.
The novel is filled with some fabulous set-pieces, many of which I haven't even begun to hint at, characterisation is clear and interesting, dialogue spot-on and frequently entertaining and the writing throughout of great quality. Again, like Burnside, we have a writer of immense talent who isn't a debut author with weighty hype behind him, nor an established prize-winner and yet he is quietly churning out good work, building in strength it would seem and I hate the idea of him becoming the kind of 'mid-list' author who finds themselves passed over because a major prize doesn't allow them to put a sticker on the front of one of those books. This one is certainly worth a read.