Beneath The Kilt

Scabrous Scotsman Alasdair Gray uncovers the national character

Alasdair Gray
The Ends of Our Tethers
Canongate

I stopped trying to explain the Scottish character quite a long time ago. It was hard enough when I lived in Scotland among fellow Scots. Now, living an ocean away from what one disgruntled expat I met called "that bigoted wee country," it's just too complicated. I grit my teeth and negotiate my way past the kilt, bagpipes, and haggis questions that bloom on American lips when I reveal how I hail from the birthplace of golf.

Writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray has no such problems. For the last half-century or so he has delighted in deftly skewering just about everyone and everything Scottish from his vantage point in Glasgow's West End. He's blasted the Blairite champagne socialists and denounced dog owners, tattooed goths, and the Presbyterians who believe Lutheranism is a form of crazed hedonism.

His latest rampage is disguised as a slim collection of short stories called The Ends of Our Tethers. Many begin with everyday situations: a man out for a walk, another man complaining about his wife, two friends going camping. But in a few pages, Gray twists them around to reveal the shabby reality of the bourgeois Scot--and wretches everywhere. Gray's stories make a reader uncomfortable. It's not unlike being bothered by a strange odor while attending a formal gathering, only to discover that you are the source of the smell.

He delivers his prose in the polite, educated Scots voice that telemarketing firms and the BBC have found people trust: It's a trust that disappears the first time you meet them in a pub, of course. Each story touches on disquieting truths. In the opening story, "Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps," we meet some high school students who take their revenge on a former teacher and then learn that the man involved is eager to twist the situation to his own bizarre ends. Yet Gray's perverse charm lies in his cheerful acknowledgement that he could well be lying through his teeth. He's just not going to say when.

Most of the tales in Tethers center on an aging, middle-class man who has drifted into an unsatisfying marriage. There's that teacher with the strange obsessions, a doctor contemplating a new job, and a man dealing with a genetic skin disorder that causes him to swing between moments of agony and ecstasy. It's an eclectic and slightly deranged group, yet it's almost impossible not to imagine Gray as the protagonist in most of his stories. They have the honest ring of a tale told by someone who has lived through each of the traumas.

In one, "No Bluebeard," the central character is moving on to his fourth wife, a fact he owns up to fully: "It now felt like madness to try seeing why everyone I loved had rejected me, but I had nothing else to do." He meets a woman in a park and invites her home, charmed by her accent and ready to forgive her explosive use of one particular expletive as a simple nervous tic. The man indulges a kind of speech disorder of his own: He cannot bring himself to name his earlier wives, and numbers them instead. This is to protect them, he claims, but a reader has to wonder who's truly being shielded. When Tilda, the woman from the park, announces she needs a wedding ring, too, you can tell it's just a matter of time before she'll become a number as well.

Gray is skilled at unveiling these nightmares just below the surface of everyday life. In "Pillow Talk" a man wakes to ask his wife why she sent him an e-mail saying she wanted to leave him. She denies having sent the message, and he realizes he must have remembered a dream. Too late, he also realizes he has spoken what his wife could not bring herself to say aloud, and that his marriage as he knew it is over.

Many of the Scottish novelists who have made such a splash in recent years--Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Duncan MacLean, and Alan Warner included--freely admit their debt to Gray's mild-mannered polemics. He's never going to enjoy great success over here, in part because readers will have to hunt down his work. But at least I can have something to stuff in the pocket of someone who is interested in more than the proper way to wear the kilt in a high wind. Alasdair Gray is a grizzled old incubus, and anyone who has read even one of his stories can feel a tiny, wretched affinity with the man in a rumpled overcoat drinking alone in a Glasgow pub.

 
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