Lives on the line

THE DEVIL'S CAROUSEL by Jeff Torrington, Secker pounds 15.99/pounds 9.9 9
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Jeff Torrington's Whitbread Award-winning first novel, Swing, Hammer, Swing, charted an odyssey through the destruction of the Gorbals in the Sixties. The Devil's Carousel is also written in Torrington's wonderfully zestful argot, but this new, leaner and more ambitious book takes the reader on a journey alien to contemporary fiction: down the assembly line of the Centaur Car Company with its "notoriously militant trade unions and bolshie labour force".

The book begins in time-honoured fashion with a disaster: "Shoes in hand, each boozy breath cautiously drawn, mindful of the notorious creaking seventh tread, Steve Laker tipsy-toed up the dark staircase", only to reach his nemesis in the shape of "a fiendish trap set by his equally fiendish stepson", a carefully placed exploding toy which brings down the wrath of his exhausted wife. As the hung-over Steve faces his new- boy's initiation into the bewildering rituals of factory life at Centaur, his first glimpse of MAD, the Main Assembly Division, staggers him: "Instead of flame-laced infernal visions and Chaplinesque exaggerations of the tyranny of machines ... [there were] car-shells, painted in a wide variety of sparkling hues, cataracting from the cavelike mouth of the transfer tunnel and swooping down onto The Widow's long reef, which was populated with myriads of white boilersuited ops."

"The Widow" (the main assembly track) is so named because there were "so many guys conking with ticker shutdowns or brain blow-outs". The Martians' (the senior management's) obsession with industrial sabotage is nothing compared to the damage inflicted on the minds and bodies of Henry Ford's hapless "assemblers".

Steve's progress along the assembly-line of factory life is intercut with domestic interludes and marital exigencies. But Torrington is not so much interested in illuminating individual as collective consciousness. Centre stage in Chapter Three is Wormsley, whose "heart had begun to behave oddly, leaping and skipping like a salmon on rocks", the first of three of The Widow's casualties (a suicide and a spectacular psychotic breakdown follow). The other chapters each focus on a particular character, from Curly Brogan, who decides to solve all life's problems by faking his own death, to Twitcher Haskins the Supersnipe (head of security) who faces retirement with his seriously ill wife, "a juiceless pair of old fossils buried in a graveyard of dead hopes".

This episodic movement of the book mimics the movement of the factory line with its compartmentalised assembling of car parts, its cumulative processes of welding and painting. Characters weave in and out of each other's stories, small details skilfully picking up on earlier points of the narrative. Puncturing the chapters are typescript issues of Kikbak, "a Laffing Anarkist Publikayshn", its commentary on Centaur events as leftfield and surreal as its spelling. Animating the whole are Torrington's pungent observations ("Kibbley continued doing his doleful impression of a man standing on the edge of an abyss watching his dentures go chattering into the darkness") and terrible, Red Dwarf similes (rumours proliferate "faster'n bacteria in a Cairo karzy").

But The Devil's Carousel is far more than a collection of linked short stories. Its coherence lies in its analysis of assembly-line production, and the manner in which Torrington's deft probing of his characters welds into an indictment of the system itself - with no resort to sentiment, nostalgia or polemic - through the ingenious labour of his exhilarating language.