A short story, so I’ll keep it short.
OK, maybe a word or two more.
Long Way Down is what we in the trade are calling a ’14,000-word novella’ and I think I got it for free, off the US Kindle store. After Tony Black mentioned it on Twitter, I’m pretty sure.
It’s about a group of characters in Edinburgh, who could possibly be called some of the last chance saloon’s best customers. Those with their own stool and their name on their mug behind the bar. The main character Gus Dury has certainly known better times. When the story opens, he’s busy minding his own business, washing his clothes in a launderette and patching his iPod with an Elastoplast but then finds himself coerced by an old friend into helping to find an(other) old school friend. No problem. But it soon becomes clear, that the friend needs to find the other friend, to save his own skin. Then Dury realises he has to find a way of getting his first friend – and himself – out of a somewhat tricky situation involving, as it does, Irish gangsters and the decidedly un-amusing, amusingly named Edinburgh crime-boss, Boaby ’Shakey’ Stevens.
It’s written in a style that emphasises the Scottish-ness (or should it be Edinburgh-ness?) of the situation and the lifestyle of its main characters. The way people who are down on their luck, see their situation, shall we say. But by blaming it completely on luck, they surely don’t see how they can get out of it, so carry on refusing to realise they’re also to blame in the situation – and so carry on blaming it on luck. The style reminded me of another novel I read many years ago, by a Scottish writer called Jeff Torrington. The book was called Swing Hammer Swing! Long Way Down isn’t as thickly Scottish as that, but that’s probably because this is set in Edinburgh and not Glasgow. But there was something in the atmosphere of Long Way Down, that did remind me. What disappointed me a little, has really nothing at all to do with Tony Black and his writing. In the version I have, there is a list, amongst the quotes from reviewers, of who we should compare Tony Black to. I was a little disappointed not to see Mark Timlin’s name mentioned. Mark Timlin may be my personal favourite writer of this sort of on the edge – of despair, of crime, of death – drama, but I really do think that Tony Black and Mark Timlin can and should be compared. Favourably and to mutual benefit.
There are wry smiles to be had amidst the gritty realism, but it’s in no way a comedy. A tragicomedy maybe. Like ‘Rab C Nesbit’ for example (though that too, was Glasgow and Govan, rather than Edinburgh and Morningside), with the same energy and pathos and the lying in the gutter looking at the stars cursing your luck. Not the belly laughs, for sure, but the spirit. And in Long Way Down, you’re smiling with Dury, not at him. Though he does perhaps sometimes try a bit too hard with the street poetry and the flowery metaphors don’t always ring true. I felt it could have done with being more understated to be fully effective, otherwise it just gets in the way, as it becomes, of necessity, more and more elaborate, more and more ornate and so the less and less effective and more annoying it can get. It can come between the reader and the story, like a tall bloke sat in front of you in the cinema.
However, all in all, I look forward to getting hold of – even paying for! – some of Tony Black’s longer stories.