Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Nutcase by Tony Williams, pub. Salt 2017

This is the story of a contemporary young man who goes to the bad in Sheffield, but there is a twist; he is an avatar of the Icelandic saga hero Grettir Asmundsson. The blurb calls the book a "retelling" of Grettir's Saga, but that may be slightly misleading. Aidan's story is not a simple reprise of Grettir's; for one thing, Aidan's life is punctuated and to some extent defined by a seemingly endless series of young women who are even more messed up with drink and drugs than he is, whereas women play very little part in Grettir's life (or if they do, the sagaman does not think fit to dwell on it). And his end is less like Grettir's than that of the mercifully almost-forgotten thug Raoul Mouat. Aidan is, however, very like Grettir in the way his initially quite good intentions are brought to nothing by the need to live up to the hard-man image he has, fairly accidentally, acquired and which dogs him thereafter, partly because people expect him to live up to it and misinterpret his words and actions accordingly, partly because he himself feels a need to live up to it.

In some ways, the saga's major influence on the novel is not on its characters but on its narrative method. Any saga fan will be aware of the huge cast of characters who wander in and out of a saga, so much so that the sagaman sometimes takes pity on the reader by announcing, after a character has somehow left the scene, "and now he is out of the story". This situation is replicated in the way Aidan and his friends wander from casual job to job, from relationship to relationship and from one accommodating friend's sofa or floor to another. They are transients; the people and places in their lives mostly temporary. In one short two and a half-page chapter I counted the names of 17 different people, few of whom I could recall or who would necessarily recur. Some readers might find that frustrating, but it mirrors the kind of lifestyle the novel is creating and if the reader has trouble remembering which name fits which character, Aidan almost certainly does too. You have to read it like a saga, trusting that if a particular name is going to matter, it will recur.

Aidan himself, of course, does have to come over as a character and he has to develop, from an unruly but not ill-natured child into someone who can kill. It helps too if he can retain a little sympathy from readers who are bound to get impatient with his shiftlessness and contrariness. This he manages by dint of a certain dry humour and the occasional emergence of better feelings that never quite go away, but mainly because there does seem to be a terrible inevitability about his life: if something he does can go wrong, or be disastrously misinterpreted, it surely will. In this he is very like Grettir the "ogaefumadr", the man of ill-luck.

The novel's narrative voice is a blend of the laconic saga-style and a more sardonic, modern idiom that works well:

everyone said it was Shelley who was the evil one and Mark was just going along with it because he was shagging her or a bit thick or scared of her, and probably all three. But Shelley had done Sociology A-level and said that was misogyny plain and simple and when a man was hard everyone wanted to be his friend, but if a fit young woman was they said she was a sicko. Which was all very well but years later when it was in the national press about stabbing that horse and how she had kept an Armenian slave in the cellar of a house on Spital Hill, everyone including the Home Office psychologist concluded that she was a sicko after all.

If there's one element of the saga that I miss in the novel, it is the supernatural. Glam, the terrifying ghost whom Grettir overcomes at the cost of his mental health, is, it is true, on one level what Grettir has it in him to be; he seems to Grettir as Grettir does to others and Grettir fears the darkness inside as well as outside him. This can be replicated in human terms by Aidan's fear of becoming like the child abuser who is Glam's equivalent here. But Glam is also elemental: Grettir has to fight not only other men and himself but the forces of nature and another world, and that is a dimension that for me the novel doesn't have. The odd thing is that one can see how it might; Aidan and his brother already have Irish Catholic names, why not give them the background and tortured conscience to go with it?

One of the most remarkable things about the novel is that it never loses momentum. This isn't easy when one is essentially describing the lives of a bunch of druggie layabouts; it's a milieu that can soon become a deadly bore. That it does not is both a tribute to the author's handling of pace and a vindication of his choice of style; the saga-form really does suit the material.
Tags: book reviews, novels
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