Sunday, April 19, 2009

GUTTED by Tony Black

Preface, June 2009, £16.99, ISBN 9781848090521

Gus Dury knows this much: he's a rager. His life is fuelled by anger, both impotent and justified, at personal aquaintances and those he's never met. His righteous fury has been curbed by harsh reality and his own limitations. In any other story he'd be heroic. Here, he's a man with no power trying his damndest to kick against all the wrongs he sees in the world.

And maybe this makes him a hero, too.

Tony Black's second novel (following from 2008's stunning Paying For It) finds Dury once again getting involved in events which others believe he has no business snooping around him. Driven by this rage and a self-destructive need to follow those he percieves as innocent into hell, Drury finds himself trying to save a dog and stumbling across a mutilated corpse. Its only the first step into a sinister world that will find Gus truly tested, physically, mentally and morally as he tries to maintain his own sense of justice in a world that constantly conspires to push him over the edge.

Gutted is fuelled by Dury's rage. At injustice both political and personal. Black's debut, Paying For It laid bare certain realities about the streets of modern Scotland, and now Gutted rips even further into our national psyche. Its exploration of class and corruption - two words that tear at the heart of our nation's politics, more-so than the smoke screen of "independence" that has become the popular image - exposes our inadequacies and shortcomings. And yet this is tempered by a deep love of our country and people. To truly love something, it seems, sometimes you have to acknowedlege the flaws inherent within it. And Black exposes our flaws, brings them out into the light so that we can see them. And we deal with them.

For all of this subtext, it is true that Black writes a terrific and furiously paced novel. Like the best of noir, the action is fast and yet never sacrifices the characters who drive it. Dury himself is a beautiful set of contradictions. His anger comes from love, and the revelations in this book about his marriage and why it was doomed to fail from the start are utterly heartbreaking and again motivated by that deep and driving rage at the ways in which people judge each other for actions that are, in the end, no one else's business.

What is more than incredible is that Black can make a character who - in a two second soundbite - might sound like someone we've seen before come across as engagingly fresh and convincingly alive. The alcoholic, crusading ex-journalist who only wants redemption even if he'll never find it? Dury is so much more than a soundbite, and that is where Black's true skills lie: he creates endlessly fascinating narratives and characters with hidden and unexpected layers.

Black is also a beautiful prose stylist. His voice comes roaring off the page, a scream of anger at the world. While Paying for It at times wore its influences on its sleeve, here Black is far more certain and sure of his own voice. We can still the influence on authors like Ken Bruen, but now Black's own voice shines through clearer, adapting his own tricks and ticks to great and mesmerising effect.

Black will make you rage like Dury at the world and he will break your heart just as easily. With Gutted, he continues to carve his own unique and dark portrait of modern Scotland. With a tour guide like Gus, you'll be taken beyond the tourist traps and tartan tat to the true torrid heart of modern Scotland.

If you haven't read Black, you're missing out on one of the best new voices to emerge from Scotland in the last few years. One of the best new voices to enter the genre, period. Miss out on this one and you will truly be Gutted.

Russel D McLean for, 17/06/09