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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Arts and Entertainment
OutKast's Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix

film
Arts and Entertainment
Columnist and writer Caitlin Moran

Review: How to Build a Girl

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil