Jonathan Cape £12.99
The Deadman's Pedal, By Alan Warner
A tale from the right side of the tracks
In a recent interview, Alan Warner revealed that he began working on this novel more than two decades ago – prior to his debut published work, Morvern Callar – before putting it aside and periodically coming back to it. Whether it's to do with that long gestation period or not I don't know, but The Deadman's Pedal is Warner's most ambitious work. It is also, thematically, one of his most accessible and commercial novels.
Set in The Port, Warner's fictionalised version of Oban, the Scottish highland town he was raised in, The Deadman's Pedal is framed as a coming-of-age novel set in the early Seventies, but it does a whole lot more than that. Simon Crimmons is just shy of his 16th birthday when the book opens, and beginning to learn about girls, booze and the mysterious world of grown-ups. Like most boys his age, he wants to grow up fast, but he has no real idea about the implications of decisions that he makes.
He is comfortably middle class – his dad runs a successful haulage business – and he constantly finds himself caught between the working-class majority of the town and the rich and posh Bultitude family, the local landed gentry whose daughter, Varie, he becomes obsessed with.
Warner is tackling all sorts of themes and conflicts in The Deadman's Pedal: we get the battle of the classes against a backdrop of the political strife of the time; Scotland versus England, the slightly more esoteric conflict between progress and nostalgia; and the struggle between nationalisation and privatisation. (When Simon gets a job as a trainee train driver, his father is disgusted that he has chosen to work for the main competition in terms of transporting goods, as well as a heavily subsidised bunch of freeloaders, as he sees it.)
But Warner delivers his social commentary with an incredibly deft touch, never letting the themes crowd out the story of Simon's personal journey into adulthood. And there is some very, very fine writing here, much of it hilarious. When Simon goes to his job on the railway, his first encounter with the grizzled old railwaymen is a masterclass in dialogue, the mood switching from gentle banter to something more serious then back again.
There are a number of equally good set pieces throughout the novel. When Simon witnesses his father sacking a useless employee, and the physical aftermath of the incident, he is left shocked to the core, while a later scene of a railway union meeting delivers some piercing high satire.
Compared to Warner's previous work, The Deadman's Pedal is aiming higher, and it hits its mark. There is a languorous quality to Warner's prose here; a reluctance to hurry, as if taking the time to cast his eye over this particular time and place will reveal a deeper knowledge of its underlying landscape. That landscape is no less than the entire Scottish psyche of the 1970s, and Warner nails it precisely and lovingly.
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