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52 Books #31: Waterline

August 7, 2011

Ross Raisin’s second novel Waterline (Penguin Viking) is an exceptionally ambitious enterprise modestly delivered. No showboating here: this is a confident, quiet, wide-ranging novel that tackles the biggest of topics without being pompous or self-aggrandising. It’s by no means flawless, but there’s an awful lot to admire here.

It’s the story of Mick, a middle-aged former shipbuilder from Clydebank, whose beloved wife Cathy has died just prior to the start of the book. Mick has long since been laid off from the defunct shipyards; after losing his spouse as well as his job he goes swiftly, irrevocably off the rails. Added to this is his conviction that since his work at Clydebank brought him into contact with asbestos, he is indirectly responsible for Cathy’s death from cancer.

Grief makes Mick churlish, impetuous and devil-may-care: to evade the ministrations of his (well-meaning but, he feels, overbearing) family he hops on a coach to London where he takes a room in a B&B which doesn’t serve breakfast — a Bed — and is briefly employed in a few dead-end jobs before, succumbing to a drink habit, he becomes homeless. After that it’s a succession of dubious allies, refuges and hostels, soup kitchens, scraps and forever being moved on.

Much of the book is told in the present tense over, as it were, Mick’s shoulder. This creates a couple of problems. Firstly, while Raisin’s handling of Weegie demotic is an impressive act of ventriloquism, I felt sometimes that it had an outsider’s insistence on utilising Scots ‘patter’ at sometimes unnecessary junctures, as though to show off learning, or at least to make gleeful use of ‘the patter’. There’s one too many “tollies” for my liking, for instance. Another misgiving — very highly subjective — comes via the ‘I never heard that’ test; while Raisin’s mangling of past tenses (“I’d have went,” “that’s what I seen”) is spot-on, I’ve never in all my years heard anyone conclude a sentence with “well” (e.g., “She doesn’t understand what he means. That makes two of them, well.”) in the way that to end on a “but” (“Mind there’s my programme on soon, but.”) is commonplace. Not saying it never happens — just that it rang false to me. And no Glaswegian — I am certain of this — has ever described a group of people doing something “theyselves”: “theirselves” is the correct incorrect term. On the other hand, a general Scots outlook on life is captured extremely well, notably an innate pride; I especially liked that for Mick, his family and his contemporaries, the idea of going on benefits — “the broo” — after being laid off is total anathema, an indignity worse than redundancy, the ultimate in humiliation.

At the start of a number of chapters we eavesdrop on other characters — a work colleague, a fellow-traveller on the Glasgow-to-London coach — and the effect of these short sidesteps is disorientating and irksome. Who is the woman at the start of Chapter 21 thinking about spreadsheets and emails in a bedroom in (I assume) the airport hotel where Mick’s been working as akitchen porter?Why are we privy to the thoughts of a man sitting on a bench across the river from Battersea Power Station in Chapter 25? What links these bit-part characters — sometimes unnamed, more irritatingly sometimes given names, indicating (falsely) they will have some greater part to play beyond the couple of pararaphs in which they pass through Mick’s life — is their fixation on work, usually hated work, employment being the thing Mick most seems to miss. Are we meant to see these little thumbnails as his own interpretation, based on the blandest of visual clues, of what other people’s inner life is like? (The fact they’re usually written in standard English, rather than Scotticised, would indicate not.) If they are present simply to show how little these vignette characters think of the “tramp” they’re passing on the street, say (as seems to be the case in a coda which strongly hints that Mick has ceased to be alive, in any sense, to those around him), they smack faintly of the right-on. I don’t think a novel, however powerful, is going to jolt people out of that deliberate refusal to countenance what has got someone to the stage of begging next to a cash machine, or stealing alcohol from a supermarket; I’d venture, perhaps extremely unfairly, that the kind of people who read literary fiction of this sort already feel guilt about ignoring the homeless, and the little vignettes are therefore unlikely again to have any galvanising effect on those readers’ consciences.

The slope of Mick’s life runs inevitable downward, punctuated by the occasional plateau when he finds an ally, or safe accommodation, or even a way to mourn his wife that is somehow constructive (he doesn’t quite accept that he is grieving, much of the times; calls it, rather, being “maunderly”). Raisin takes a major risk when he has Mick discover if not a fondness for the Barbara Taylor Bradford novels that Cathy used to read then, at least, some form of comfort in reading them. Three different BTB texts — fictive or real? — are precised within the last few chapters, and the risk Raisin runs is of luring the reader into seeking comparisons and parallels between his almost too grim story and the prosaic and predictable “Barbara” stories. There are certainly points where we sense that Mick’s eye is drawn to women he meets in passing; though he never acknowledges any romantic urge — never admits to more than finding the girl in question attractive in some objective way — there is the occasional sense that Raisin is over-intent on steering his book away from a scenario where Mick might be seen to find any sort of happiness. It’s certainly consistent with his character’s refusal to countenance the possibility of future happiness, but I felt that the authorial engineering could have been carried out with a slightly lighter touch.

Waterline feels to me something like the film Dancer in the Dark, where a single random tragedy sets off a series of ever-worsening events. Dancer in the Dark is viscerally terrible, a film you watch while trying to stuff your fist in your mouth, unable to look away but barely able to watch, but it depends somewhat on people behaving selfishly and giving the decent central character no chance to remedy her situation. Waterline is far less gruelling an experience; the horror and misery of Mick’s situation is sometimes held at arm’s length, and while similar circumstances push Mick lower and lower here, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether Raisin intends us to purely sympathise with Mick’s situation. I don’t think he quite does; as a comparison we have Mick’s sometime sidekick Beans, a far less sympathetic figure with a similar story (and who gets embroiled in a purely box-ticking plot incident to illustrate those horrific news stories about hooligans setting tramps on fire), and I think we’re meant to root for Mick, to feel he can and should climb out of the hole he’s found himself in.

But I felt manoeuvred towards this interpretation, somewhat against my will. The urge to tell Mick to pull himself together is strong at times in this book; he accepts the depredations visited on him with frustrating stoicism. I came away from this book faintly frustrated, too, and saddened — in more ways than one — about missed opportunities.

Other reading in Week #31:

Tim Burrows From CBGB to the Roundhouse: Music Venues Through the Years (Marion Boyars)

Greg Milner Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music (Granta)

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