BOOK REVIEW / Teenage hopes scotched: 'Blackden' - Duncan McLean: Secker, 9.99

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The Independent Culture
YOUNG Scottish novelists like their realism dirty. They write terse stories about damp flats and drug addicts, football casuals and dole queues, proudly drawing life from the messy stuff of modern cities the English shy away from - or so their supporters argue. They're right, up to a point; it's hard to think of an English writer producing a collection of rough, dead-end stories like McLean's 1992 debut Bucket of Tongues. But, on repeated exposure, the tone of this kind of fiction (literary hard men revering Carver and Bukowski) seems less iconoclastic, and its subjects (ever tougher and tinier city subcultures) provide diminishing returns.

McLean's first novel looks for a way out of this cul-de-sac. He sets it in the village of Blackden, with cows, ancient woods, Young Farmers' dances, and Aberdeen in the far distance. He seeds it thickly with natural description - 'down in the wet cleft of the den the winter rot was already setting in' - and waits patiently for his images to grow into a world. Characters are steady and amiable, and while his main protagonist, 18-year-old Paddy Hunter, boils with teenage frustrations, he makes him more of a rambler and a day-dreamer than a brawler.

At first this kinder, gentler McLean doesn't seem to be working. The plot's premise is low-key - Paddy is left alone at home on a winter weekend, looking for some action - and develops slowly, as the sentences linger over the weather and the minutiae of rural life. But as Paddy charges round the village on an old bicycle, his mind leaping from juvenile thoughts about 'excellent grub' to cosmic speculations about Life and Love, so he chafes against the very rural world McLean has been lovingly creating. He stomps out of a dance in a sulk ('I haven't drunk nearly enough to have a good time. This is Scotland after all'), argues with his mates and gets bored watching the old folks playing curling

on the frozen school tennis court. And Paddy's accumulating angst makes McLean's version of country life more interestingly ambiguous.

At the same time, the book's nationalism - almost deafening in opening pages packed with Scots vernacular - becomes more muted and self-questioning. A rich English incomer called Brindle appears at first as a pub stereotype, all neighing vowels and gullibility, but then assumes a more complex role: offering Paddy a job writing mottoes for souvenirs of Scotland, commemorating victory at Bannockburn and shut-down at Ravenscraig alike. Paddy turns down the offer, as he does an apprenticeship as the village auctioneer, selling off the contents of failed farms. Instead, he hurtles ever faster around Blackden, looking desperately for a reason to stay, like 'a motorbiker on a wall of death . . . going a hell of

a speed, maybe, but never actually getting anywhere'. McLean makes a resolution out of Paddy's perpetual motion, and lets a little romanticism glow in the closing panorama of crags and glens spreading out beyond Blackden. But by then you know that McLean doesn't believe in Bonnie Scotland any more.

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