THE BIG MAN by William McIlvanney


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McIlvanney, author of the somber, gritty Laidlaw police-procedurals (set in Glasgow's seediest sections), turns--rather too self. consciously--to serious fiction here: this small tale of moral courage and identity-crisis, though occasionally striking, suffers throughout from labored analysis and ponderous imagery. The ""big man"" of the title is Dan Scoular, 33, whose life in the rundown Scottish mining town of Thornbank has reached a dour, panicky impasse. A miner's son, Dan has never achieved the middle class-dom his parents wanted for him: he's a blue-collar worker, now unemployed. Dan's wife Betty, from a painfully genteel background, was attracted to Dan's proletarian relaxation--but has become increasingly disappointed in his limited socio-cultural growth: their marriage is crumbling (to the point of adultery). But Dan still retains a certain presence in the town--because of his incomparable way with his fists, a talent that he has always used with restraint, selectivity, and basic reluctance. Then Dan gets an offer that seems to provide an opportunity for reasserting his manhood, for making some money and saving his marriage, perhaps for establishing his identity at last. A Glasgow bookie-tycoon, Matt Mason, hires Dan to fight in a bare-knuckle bout up in Glasgow against Curry Dawson, who represents Mason's bookie-empire rival. What's the point of the match? Dan has no idea--but he plunges into the project, training hard, swallowing his pride when necessary, despite waves of reminiscence and doubt. (""He had set out on his own small voyage of self. discovery and he wouldn't predetermine his destination."") Ultimately, however, traumatized by the fight itself, the aftermath, and discoveries about his ruthless employer, Dan rebels against the money/violence ethic, returns home, patches things up (a bit implausibly) with Betty--and essentially declares I-am-what-I-am, reaffirming solidarity with his lower. class chums. There's a simplistic, preachy quality to the morality-play here, then, Heavy-handed, too, are McIlvanney's sociological commentaries, the psychologizing of Dan and Betty, the chunks of overwritten description. (A Glasgow gym: ""To see it still and empty may remind you of the small mysteries that move at the edge of our assumptions, the bafflements float haunt the commonplace, The ring that taker up so much of the small room seems such an arbitrary structure with its canvas floor and its taped ropes. Yet it dominates the dialectic of the room like an irrefutable pre. mise,"" etc.) So, despite hefty reaffirmation of McIlvanney's talent--fine Scottish-town atmosphere, strong dialogue, flarings of genuine eloquence--this is an inflated and unpersuasive novel, reminiscent in its themes of David Storey's vastly more effective fiction of class-consciousness.

Pub Date: May 27th, 1986
Publisher: Morrow