The Whitbread verdict has been seen as controversial, a case of yet another panel of judges overlooking the formidable merits of Adam Thorpe's Ulverton. But if I were given just a couple of minutes to convince sceptics that Torrington has virtuosic literary gifts, I should single out the following characteristic piece of word-play. The narrator is describing a Glaswegian pensioner's manky crypt of a flat (the book gives its own distinctive tints to the territory of James Kelman and Alasdair Gray) and remarks that 'the stark iron bed on which several heavy coats served as additional blankets looked as if it had been party to a lot of dying'. 'Privy to a lot of dying' is what you would expect, but the pile of coats (redolent, in these incongruous
circumstances, of parties) evidently inspired Torrington to that mordant comic twist, conjuring up a bed so sordid that it actively assists in the death of its occupants.
An exuberant flair for the grotesque and a knack of setting up, in the most uncontrived and casual manner, all the elements needed for sudden explosions of surreal farce are the main gifts that animate this wonderfully enjoyable book. Plus (and above all) a generous, irrepressible style in which gamey, working-class Glaswegian spreads out to catch other frequencies: Joycean word-jinks (a used condom discovered in a snow-covered phone-kiosk spews 'frozen dadpoles'); wry, hard-bitten movie speak; and philosophical musings of an earthy, autodidactic kind ('Just as Socrates died from the feet upwards, so Paddy Cullen came from sleep in the same direction').
The voice behind all this belongs to Thomas Clay, a 28-year-old dreamer with no job, an unpublished novel, a pregnant wife in hospital with high blood pressure, a cruddy flat in a condemned Gorbals tenement, and an incorrigible conviction that he's special in a way that exempts him from that 'virtue crap'. He calls himself, honestly, 'a mercenary of the moment' and the novel is his record of the moments that make up one snow-swept long weekend in the late Sixties. It takes us into the pubs, cludgies (lavatories), 'jiggered shops', etc, of a Gorbals that is being demolished around him.
It's the sundered community, rather than individual people, that elicits the deepest tenderness in Tam. As he watches the mirror in the long-established Italian barber's shop being taken down by workmen, he imagines 'the avalanche of reflected
objects which had long roosted there', now crudely disturbed 'at this late stage of their existence'.
The vaudeville and violence of Glasgow capture his imagination, too. Tam's night of extra-marital nookie (posing as one of his friends) has, for instance, a long knock-on effect that leads to a sublime piece of farcical street theatre. The innocent friend, wrapped in mummy-cloth (a 'Cairo onepiece') to advertise Terror from the Tomb at the local fleapit, is due to cop it badly from the cuckolded husband. Conveniently easing Tam's guilt at leading the irate man to him, though, is the discovery that the mummy outfit has already incited a gang of youths to jeering aggro and that its human contents are being pelted with stones. 'They've got'm wrapped in bandages already. By jings, that was quick, was it no?' remarks a female bystander.
Attractively refusing to steer its hero to clear-cut moral redemption, this is the rare sort of novel that a reviewer resents not being able to quote in its entirety.Reuse content