For a hot-blooded, romantic outsider, growing up wild in the remote Orkney Islands north of Scotland leads to living wild in London—as a sex worker.
In his US debut, Sutherland—himself a native Orcadian—plays for us the life-story, on tape, of a fellow Orcadian dying in London. The first and stronger half of the book is set in Orkney, where D’s life is bleak: Violence at home (his dad); violence on the school bus; violence at school itself. Worse yet, to curry favor with the “shitty little two-faced bastards” he hangs out with, he puts himself down and revels in their sickening humiliation of a black kid. But there are bright moments, as when he becomes friendly with Finola—until he fails to protect her from rampaging thugs and she leaves the island (he wears her abandoned knickers to console himself). He has a brief erotic encounter, at age 12, with a Danish parachutist. And then there’s Tracy, his one real love: sex with her sparks visions of orchards and angels, visions he’ll pass on to all his future sex partners. When she rejects him, he leaves for the mainland to work as a dishwasher and pleasure his coworkers and hotel guests indiscriminately, for D is tri-sexual (as in the old joke: he’ll try anything sexual). He bares his soul in a voice that is edgy and compelling, but much of that edge disappears in the novel’s London half, where D joins a “crew of queens” in a “knocking shop” run by Radu, a former neo-Nazi from Romania. It should all be juicy, but it isn’t; Sutherland works better with a smaller canvas. Between the deluge of drugs and the distractions of the London scene (much voyeurism through a telescope), the clarity of vision fades and is swallowed up in melodrama.
Sutherland captures the violence and desperation of the marginalized: that’s where his strength, and promise, lies.