Novel of the week
The Man Who Walks
Alan Warner Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £10.99
For more than a decade, Scottish fiction writers have generally proved themselves more innovative and powerful as chroniclers of contemporary life then their counterparts in England, Ireland or Wales. Irvine Welsh may have hit the big time in 1993 with Trainspotting, his shocking vernacular depiction of drug addicts in Edinburgh, but James Kelman had already proved that there was a new vitality in the Scottish viewpoint. A L Kennedy and Ali Smith, among many others, have added their voices to the mix. But Alan Warner is arguably the most mature and original of them all. The Man Who Walks bears this out.
A picaresque mock-epic, it follows the adventures of a homeless itinerant, the Nephew, as he attempts to track down his uncle, the "Man Who Walks", who, not for the first time, has gone AWOL, roaming lost in the Scottish Highlands, the setting for Warner's three previous novels, Morvern Callar, These Demented Lands and The Sopranos.
Apparently insane, the Man Who Walks (who long since placed himself firmly outside conventional social boundaries) has stolen more than £20,000 - the World Cup kitty of the Mantrap pub. The Nephew is determined to get the money back. It could take a long time, because the Man Who Walks has an unusual ailment: when he is drunk (which is often), he loses his sense of balance and is unable to tackle gradients. Lamentably, in mountainous countryside where some pubs are many miles apart, this means it can take him a fortnight simply to get from one to another. This jokey premise sets the tone for a bizarre yet moving odyssey.
In the course of his journey, the Nephew has a number of encounters: with his sexy ex-girlfriend Paulette; an unemployed radio presenter who always talks as if he is on air; a bevy of decadent aristocrats; a Hollywood location scout; and a disaffected railway trolley hostess. Each meeting involves unorthodox behaviour, drink and drugs. Memories of his childhood - he grew up in a caravan and was maltreated by his uncle - are triggered as he goes. The narrative is punctuated by learned allusions, and by enjoyable excerpts from an unreliable memoir discovered by the Nephew among his uncle's possessions.
As usual, in Warner, the absurdist black comedy and the vision of man struggling against physical incapacity echoes Beckett. The social satire has much in common with Swift. Reminiscent of both is the preoccupation with bodily functions. Shit, whether human or bovine, is everywhere. For Warner, love is holding the loved one's hair out of her eyes as she pukes. His satirical targets are specifically Scottish. His strong nationalism is tempered by an awareness of the national weakness for strong intoxicants, and he mocks both the fakery of the tourist industry and the remnants of a dissolute aristocracy (in a scene oddly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland). Layered into the satire are snippets of Scottish history, as well as ancient myths, which endow the novel with the oblique power of legend. Above all, this muscular, poetic book is suffused with love of the inhospitable Highlands: "Enough to make you dizzy, these lochs under knobs of pointless land, layered with humus and smeared bluntly westward; sick sweet knottles of whin bush and daisies, daisies so close meshed they look like a sleet fall in grass." It's also anarchically funny.
Neither the Nephew nor his elusive uncle is, as a literary creation, as memorable as the wondrous character of Morvern Callar in Warner's debut. But The Man Who Walks confirms this Scot as one of the most unusual and provocative writers working this side of the Atlantic.