Rating: 4 stars
This was a minor risk. I won Three Craws at a book quiz. I think it was a consolation prize, because we never came first in all the times we went. So, it was free, which is something. I chose it because I knew of James Yorkston. He’s a musician. I’ve been aware of him from his Fence Collective days, but never really paid that much attention to his music. I was interested to see, though, whether a musician could translate the stories he tells through song into a story told through prose.
I didn’t like the opening pages. Reading them felt a bit ‘so what?’ I wasn’t engaged, I couldn’t find a liking for Johnny as a character. I almost gave up, but I’m not a quitter unless a book is really, truly execrable. And those first few pages weren’t execrable.
With this book, not immediately liking Johnny might have been a problem, because the book is mainly about Johnny. Failed art student Johnny, shuffling around aimlessly in London. In those first few pages, he receives a letter from his old pal Stevie, inviting him back to Fife. Johnny leaps at the chance, leaping onto a night bus, and thus encountering a character who turned the book around for me. The horrifically comic Mikey is dirty, greasy, smells faintly of piss and fish. He’s stoned on dope and then wired on speed within a handful of pages. He’s both hilarious and a little bit frightening. These aspects of his character grow as the book progresses and he attaches himself to Johnny like a homunculus.
Yorkston has a way with the vernacular. His style reminded me of James Kelman, whose How Late It Was, How Late I read recently, and also of Iain Banks. Johnny and Stevie are recent returnees to the East Neuk of Fife, and for both it’s a slight defeat. Neither wants to be back, but neither knows what else to do. They share a marginal existence, making ends meet as best they can, trying to hold on to their dignity and humanity. Mikey keeps putting a spanner in the works, though.
Alongside their present day existence, we are treated to the backstory of Johnny and Stevie, growing up in Fife, misunderstood by the sons of the local fishermen, and the scrapes they get into as a result. There’s an episode with a sheep that is beautifully written, capturing the quandary of two lads knowing they’re doing a worse wrong in order to cover up an idiotic mistake.
This is a book about the every day. It’s about people on the margins, brought there because where they live is in economic decline, traditional industries not being replaced by anything that can realistically sustain a community, locals living hand to mouth alongside the relatively privileged students at St Andrews University. It’s about people who have tried to escape and make a different life for themselves and found themselves misfits in their new environment. It’s about how the path you don’t want your life to go down sometimes becomes inevitable because the odds are stacked against you.
Compared with another book about the every day that I read recently, Yorkston packs a whole lot more into his prose. Not a word is wasted. Not a phrase is self indulgent.
Reading his novel made me want to listen more closely to his music. Yorkston has kindly, and coincidentally, put together an introduction to his music in a Spotify playlist. It goes well with the book.
I don’t know what I was expecting from this novel, but it wasn’t what I got. What it delivered was beyond my expectation. It’s a wonderful example of story telling. There are moments of tension interspersed with the lulls of normal existence. At times my heart was in my mouth, wondering what awful occurrence was waiting round the corner, what new way Mikey would find to spoil Johnny and Stevie’s day. I didn’t expect what came at the end. Yorkston is a proper story teller. I hope that more novels will follow this one.