Primitive urges in the north-east

BUNKER MAN by Duncan McLean, Cape pounds 9.99
EARLY ON in this book a young janitor called Rob Catto spends a whole page chasing litter round his school playground. Crisp packets and Coke cans flap and skitter in the "sharp blaffs of wind" off the North Sea; Catto, scooping and pouncing, thinks of himself as hunting "little creatures of various sorts, all desperate not to be swept up"; and McLean constructs a scene unimaginable in, say, a Julian Barnes novel.

Giving everyday banality a filthy physicality is an established tactic of young Scottish writers now, a conscious reaction against (they say) the Oxbridge fops. McLean's last book, Blackden, was full of mud and mince butties; this time he's predictably given his protagonist Catto the dullest job possible, with minutely described duties and a major interest in jogging round his drab north-east coastal town, as a way to "smash up" any creative ideas he might have. What's new, however - and what gives this the purpose Blackden lacked - is an element of malign fantasy, as Catto's merry litter musings darken into more unpleasant thoughts and acts.

Between his school and the sea is a large, dark wood; one flat afternoon Catto decides he is being watched. As he mends light fittings and makes cups of tea, the notion grows. After work his usual daydreamy wanderings along the clifftops become a fixation with a crumbling wartime bunker, set on a headland just beyond the wood - the headquarters, he thinks, of a "sick bastard" with his eye on the pupils. Catto sends his headteacher memos recommending sweeps of the woods, suggests floodlights and security fences round the school; then one night he sees a parka-hooded figure and gives chase, but finds no one.

Meanwhile his home life frays. Newly married, his relationship with his more successful wife Karen crosses the line from lust to cruelty. Her career and her white-collar colleagues bother him, left behind with his demeaning residue of a manual job. She wants to paint their house, and talk; he wants to gobble his pizza, stay away from "feelings" and, above all, hunt the Bunker Man.

McLean catches this breakdown with verbal and physical batterings and rambling interior monologue - all the stock-in-trade of this kind of fiction. But Catto gradually becomes an original, powerful creation, a hard man whose brutality is heightened to the point of hysteria and paranoia: "every man is the enemy of every other man, a competitor, a rival... You can't relax for a second." As Catto grows more obsessed, he comes to hate careers, politics, domesticity, cleanliness - anything that suggests 'progress' beyond the primal state he's reducing himself to. McLean's becomes a vision of Scots masculinity wounded and destructively turned in on itself, quite contrary to the noble working class described by his predecessors.

This vision is most of the book; Karen and the other characters are blurs on the margins of all this masculine self-absorbtion. Except for two: Sandra Burnett, a thin and desperate fourth-former whom Catto 'protects' then possesses, and the Bunker Man himself, upon whom Catto projects all his violent fantasies. Similarly, his town and home barely exist in the prose, blotted out by the bunker, with its "fangs of broken glass" and concrete "warm and smooth, almost like skin".

Ultimately Catto's tunnel-vision rage leaves the reader without quite enough to care about; it becomes a compelling but uninvolving spectacle, like a fight outside a pub. McLean drives the increasingly Gothic narrative on regardless - a grunting, near-animal Catto casting Karen and Sandra aside to confront the Bunker Man - forever hinting at horrors to come. They never quite arrive; this lacks the vile inventiveness of Iain Banks' comparable Wasp Factory. But you won't see janitors the same way again.

Susie, one line to fill ! Naomi

Comments