Novel of the week

Hero of the Underworld

Jimmy Boyle <em>Serpent's Tail, 186pp, £8.99</em>

What is it about the underworld that can be so seductive? Jimmy Boyle, who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit, has long been drawn to this twilight realm of dubious motivation and deviant behaviour.

Growing up in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, notorious for its razor gangs and rivalry, Boyle was a fearless and feared criminal until his imprisonment. Regarded as one of Britain's most dangerous prisoners, he was placed in solitary confinement for seven years. This period is chronicled in his powerful two-volume autobiography, A Sense of Freedom and The Pain of Confinement. But Hero of the Underworld, his debut novel, has none of the rage or indeed the suspense of that work.

Hero is institutionalised at the age of 12, when his mother dies and his father goes insane. Dragged from one institution to another, he eventually ends up in a mental hospital. There he is raped by warders and thrown into solitary confinement.

The sounds of other inmates committing suicide haunt him, as does Dr Snider, a macabre scientist who experiments with her patients. On his release into community care, Hero enters a world as perilous as the hospital itself. His landlords steal most of the money he earns through working in the local abattoir. Their brutality forces Hero and his friends, including the prostitute Black Widow, with whom he falls in love, to rob the landlords' safe.

Boyle, unlike most writers, who can only observe the underworld as outsiders, writes with powerful conviction. He may claim that his novel is not autobiographical, but it is surely informed by his own experiences - which makes the unrealistic underworld depicted here even more disappointing. His vision is crude and over-simplified; there are few revelations or startling insights. Yet anyone who spends any time with criminals and prostitutes must know that the underworld is a complex of hierarchical layers and subcultures that overlap and interact with one another and with mainstream society. It has its own spoken and unspoken rules, conventions, snobberies. And etiquette, protocol and good manners are as important in the underworld as in ordinary life, even when certain mistakes can cost you your life.

But Boyle fails to peel away these layers of ambiguity, fails to animate how so-called low-lifers actually live. For him, there are only two dimensions of behaviour: absolute goodness and absolute badness. But what of the grey, smudged spaces where most of us spend our lives?

His characters are sketchily drawn, too. He offers few insights into how - or why - Black Widow operates as a prostitute. And Dr Snider is the epitome of the wicked, emotionless scientist, experimenting on her patients with drug cocktails and lobotomies under local anaesthetic. Who is keeping a check on her work, one asks. Even the two landlords are caricature thugs - dumb, greedy and violent. Where is the subtlety and complexity of real life? There is a lot of plot here and much of it struggles to reflect contemporary life; an abattoir is an unlikely place to send ex-mental patients, with knives and chainsaws all over the place. Still, it may have happened. Even coincidence loses its meaning as characters turn up in the unlikeliest places at the unluckiest of times.

What is good about Boyle is his tough, wised-up demotic - no flinching here, a shovel is a shovel, shit is shit. He understands what extreme isolation does to the human psyche, comparing its monotonous effects to the constant dripping of a leaky tap. He describes, too, how the harrowing days of isolation are balanced by "newsreeled memories from the past zooming through my head". If only there more observations as good as this.

Thair Shaikh rarely leaves Soho

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?