Books: Sentences with an appeal

Forget the author's sensational past as gangster and convict, argues Danuta Kean, and you will still enjoy a bleakly funny fictional debut; Hero of the Underworld by Jimmy Boyle Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99, 216pp
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The Independent Culture
MEDIA COVERAGE for Jimmy Boyle's first venture into fiction has inevitably concentrated on his notorious past - Gorbals gang leader, convicted killer, "most dangerous prisoner", renowned sculptor and writer - rather than the quality of his work. Boyle's two-part autobiography drew attention to the brutality of Britain's jails in the 1970s and had a significant impact on the campaign for prison reform. So, as far as the British press is concerned, even 15 years after his release, the man may be out of Peterhead but Peterhead remains in the man.

Yet there are parallels between this novel and Boyle's own history that make speculation about its autobiographical content more than lazy journalism. Hero - John Alexander Ferguson, a long-term inmate of the brutal Institution - narrates a story which ranges from cruelty and incontinence to cattle- rustling and an audacious heist.

The Institution is a place where two warders, Gorky and Fat Head, goad and rape their charges while Dr Snider, lauded as a pioneering neurosurgeon, forces inmates to sing during lobotomies carried out under local anaesthetic. Like Boyle, Hero's refusal to yield to the regime lands him in trouble and he spends long years in solitary confinement, where his belligerent spirit refuses to be cowed. Once free, Hero's underworld is populated by a ragbag of psychotic gangsters, corrupt police, kind-hearted prostitutes and weird former inmates seared by experiences inside. All of these echo the Gorbals gangland described by Boyle in his autobiography.

But it would be a pity if such parallels eclipsed the fact that this is an absorbing, if flawed, first novel, by turns shocking, passionate, uplifting and very funny. It is not another spin on Boyle's own dark secrets, though they have undoubtedly informed his writing (it is hard to believe his own stretch in solitary was not in mind when the vivid passages about Hero's incarceration were written).

The strengths of the book are its compassion and gallows humour. In Hero, Boyle has created a character whose struggle captures the sympathy of the reader and whose narration has a linguistic authenticity - including an at times irritating tendency to slip into cliche. There is genuine pathos in the contrast between Hero's macho defiance during captivity and his utter impotence when released: he cannot control his bowels, let alone his penis. Freedom disempowers him and he longs for the status and security of confinement.

Much of the humour is provided by macabre comic set-pieces, though Boyle's reliance on bodily functions, cadavers and graveyards leaves him open to the criticism that he has opted for easy laughs. Hero's friends provide the other element of farce. The midget Bonecrusher, who eats pigs' eyeballs as though they were sherbet lemons, Sligo, whose cod Irishness is straight from the set of Ballykissangel, and the tramps Skelly and Warthog are types frequently found in this kind of Grand Guignol world. But the stereotypes are redeemed by clever character twists and Boyle's sympathy.

The novel's chief weakness lies in Boyle's method of writing. It reflects his approach to sculpting, which he describes as "energy". He chooses to attack his medium "blind", chipping away until the character of the stone emerges. This gives his sculptures a visceral power, a dangerous edge.

His approach to writing follows much the same style. The characters emerge from his unconscious, after which he chips away at his word processor until the story arrives. It is an unusual method in an age when plotting has reasserted its primacy and many new novels resemble joined-up screenplays. When it works, it works well, but at times it leads to some sloppy writing in need of the editor's pencil.

Beyond these minor flaws, Hero... provides a vivid fable, replete with redemptive morality and a few belly laughs. As well as a notorious past, Jimmy Boyle can boast an undoubted ability as a storyteller of imagination and power.