Kitchen sink

Jul 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Coconut BadgerCoconut Badger – Mark MacNicol
Pub: Two Fit Poles
Paperback £7.99 ($39.99) ISBN 9780956795809
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

In the 1950s the only thing you needed to shock your readers was a kitchen sink. Sixty years on it takes something more extreme.

Mark MacNicol’s troubling novel is set in the run down housing projects of Glasgow. His protagonist straddles two worlds. One foot is planted awkwardly in the estate where he was brought up – semi-derelict and rotten with alcohol, drugs and violence. The other is in the city’s financial district where he works – also twisted by lust, greed and ambition. When the book opens Tam is a loser in both, tongue-tied and terrified. Then he is taken up by Pat, an old man with a fearsome reputation, veteran of the city’s sectarian gang wars.

MacNicol slips easily from one milieu to the other, partly through the skilled use of dialogue, switching from smooth, middle-class chat-up lines to Clydeside patois without missing a beat.

Characters on both sides of the divide have an urgent life, but it is the people of the estates that really jump off the page:

“Yoos ignorin me, a said whit’s goan oan here?”
…Pat had a small man’s frame but somehow carried the menacing demeanour of a giant. He also sported a year-round tan, which was unusual as he never went on holiday. On closer inspection, his ravaged capillaries could be attributed to the whisky. His bald head was smooth and had the shine of a snooker ball. Sagging bags under his eyes and prominent laughter lines gave his face a look of surplus skin: Tam had never seen so many lines on a human face.

MacNicol also has the knack of sneaking up on the reader with fearsome images:

Pat reached down, picking one up as if he were a child holding a hamster. He stared at it almost lovingly for several seconds and then split the handle in two. Tam realised with horror that what he had thought were harmless fountain pens were in fact two open razors.

Tam gets his first lessons carving a pig’s head perched on one of the rides in a children’s playground.

This is a powerfully written book, but not for the squeamish. The reader is hustled along through a world that is mostly unpleasant, fascinated by what may be on the next page but at the same time dreading it.

And in fact, while MacNicol is clearly energised by the sordid and the bloody and his energy vibrates powerfully through the book, the more I read, the more I found myself wondering what the point was. He seemed to be saying that brutality was somehow more valid than other experience. Can that really be true?

In one sense all fiction is an act of thoughtless cruelty. Does anyone really care about Mrs Rochester, mad in the attic? But even if the good guys don’t win, we need them to be… well, good. They have to have stature. Or is that too Victorian? At least we have to care about them. Tam earns no respect, either as a wimp soiling his trousers or as the apprentice hard man.

Sixty years ago social realism had a purpose. Post-war Britain was still riddled with class. There were still taboos to be broken and the voices of the regions were full of energy. It isn’t clear what boundaries MacNicol is pushing back. Poverty and social division have not gone away but violence, brutality and ignorance are not the new kitchen sink. They are not in any sense more authentic than gentler subjects. They are simply… violent, brutal and ignorant.

Coconut Badger Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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