Novelists frequently harvest their personal histories in search of memorable escapades, remarkable characters, and crucial life lessons. “Write what you know,” goes the maxim—and what can authors be expected to know better than their own experiences? But not every writer finds such fertile material in his past as Peter May did when he set out to write Runaway, a standalone work about teenage musicians from Glasgow, Scotland, who hie off impulsively to London in quest of pop stardom, only to have their adventure turn discouraging and deadly.
As May told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, back when Runaway was originally published in early 2015, his own decision to flee his native Glasgow at age 17, in the late 1960s, proved to be “a very formative experience.”
“It begins with when I was expelled from school, just as the main character is in the beginning of Runaway,” said May. “I played in a band from the age of 11 and it just got me into a lot of trouble at school because I was always turning up late. I had long hair and I wore weird outfits, because often I would go straight to school from a gig. One day my headmaster just grabbed me and said, ‘May, take your long hair and your big furry coat and go home and don’t come back.’ So that was the end of my school career.”
After pushing paper in a low-level civil service job for a few months, May decided he had had enough, and persuaded his fellow bandmates, with not a penny to their name, to run away to London with only their musical instruments.
“That night the four of us all left notes for our parents on the pillows, got into a beat-up old van and hurtled down the motorway,” says May. “But another friend we’d told actually alerted our parents, so, though we didn’t know it at the time, our dads chased us down the motorway, trying to stop us. But we turned off the road and slept overnight in a graveyard somewhere so they never caught up with us.…
“We thought we’d go round all the music agents in London and get someone to represent us or take us on and they would get us gigs and a recording contract. But we didn’t even have demo tapes and couldn’t get anyone’s interest, so we very quickly ran out of money and we had nowhere to stay. We slept in the van a few times in Hyde Park and spent most of the time busking in the tube stations.”
In Runaway, May’s role goes to the fictional Jack Mackay, the only child of a Glaswegian teacher father and a frustrated artist mother, who hated learning music until he heard the Beatles perform “Love Me Do.” Then his principal desire became to take up the guitar and become a recording artist. When he was 15 years old, Mackay and some friends—Maurie Cohen, Luke Sharp, Dave Jackson, and a novice drummer named Jeff—put together a band they called The Shuffle (“after the Bob & Earl song ‘Harlem Shuffle’ ”). They aspired to renown and riches—someday. But their timeline is accelerated in 1965, after Jack is booted from school at age 17 for endeavoring to share a bit of reefer with his new girlfriend, Jenny Macfarlane, and in a fit of indignation he decides to abandon his family and hightail it to London, “the Big Smoke,” where he hopes to join the growing music scene. His bandmates, all of whom have troubles of their own they’d like to leave behind, quickly decide to join the fun, and together they head south in a van supplied by Jeff, who’s lately been a trainee car salesman.
So that’s one of Runaway’s storylines, the more dramatic one. Paralleling it, though, is another, set this time in 2015—half a century later—which begins with a now 67-year-old Jack Mackay being summoned to Maurie Cohen’s hospital bedside in Glasgow. It seems that his old compadre, who’d long prospered from a civil law practice (before being “disbarred for fraud”), is dying from cancer and wants Mackay’s help in returning to London. Cohen’s not forthcoming with details of what he hopes to accomplish during that excursion, but his purpose in going is related to the recent strangling of a once prominent film actor, Simon Flet, who the press says “vanished in 1965 after bludgeoning a man to death during a drug-crazed party in London’s West End.” Much to Mackay’s surprise, Cohen tells him that Flet wasn’t responsible for that long-ago murder…but that he knows who did commit the crime. “Which means,” Cohen says, “I’ve got to go back again, Jack. No choice.”
Tired in the wake of a predominately tedious banking career, lonely since the passing of his wife, Jenny, and unhappy with their daughter Susan’s choice of husband, Mackay is initially reluctant to assist Cohen in this fuzzy mission. But he finally decides that he owes his infirm pal one last favor. What’s more, Mackay kind of misses his younger self and wouldn’t mind revisiting the most risk-taking episode from his boyhood. So, with an alcoholic Dave Jackson along for the ride, and his brilliant but listless 22-year-old grandson, Ricky, driving them in his car, Mackay engineers a scheme to liberate Cohen from his medicinal confines, and this group of unlikely heroes lights out for the British capital. “What the hell?” Mackay reasons. “After sixty-seven years it was time to start living.”
May’s engrossing dual narrative is partly crime fiction, partly a story of misspent and naïve youth, and partly a redemption tale. In 1965 we watch Jack Mackay and his musician cohorts fall into an obvious trap that loses them their traveling money; rescue Cohen’s fetching cousin Rachel from her abusive, drug-selling boyfriend (only to then see her commence an affair with Mackay that’s destined to end badly as well); enjoy a couple of improbable brushes with fame (hey, that’s Bob Dylan!), and eventually accept the dubious hospitality of a celebrity psychiatrist whose experimental treatment of schizophrenics includes using LSD. Fifty years on we are witness to some rather more humorous incidents, the majority of those revolving around Mackay’s struggle to convince Ricky that he has more to offer society than a notable dexterity with video games. Yet the real delight of the modern storyline is seeing May’s over-the-hill band of blokes rediscover their energy and purpose in a quixotic attempt to make amends for past sins.
Some of the episodes presented here stretch the limits of credibility, only one of the female characters receives much attention, and readers expecting a quick resolution to the homicide recorded at the front of this yarn are likely to be disappointed; Runaway is a thoughtful exploration of friendship and a reminder of how frail dreams can be, as much as it is a mystery. It is also, like Walter Mosley’s more recent Easy Rawlins tales (Little Green, Rose Gold) and John Lawton’s 2014 standalone, Sweet Sunday, a vivid portrayal of the 1960s, that era during which young people were invited to simultaneously find themselves and lose themselves amid a welter of drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll. (“This is the sixties, boys,” a character tells Mackay and his pals in Runaway. “You need to experience it all.”) As Peter May readily admits, his novel “ventures into untrodden territory,” stretching the genre’s limits. Several questions are left unanswered until this book’s surprising conclusion.
Runaway is a different sort of work for May, whose international reputation rests largely on the success of his novel Blackhouse (one of my favorite books of 2012) and its two sequels, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen, all of which are set among the wind-ravaged islands of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Runaway provides more lighthearted elements than those other books, but also an air of poignancy. It’s not hard to guess that Peter May, looking back over his own 65 years, misses his younger self, too.
Photo above: Peter May, on the far left, playing with his band, The Aristokrats, in Glasgow when he was 13 or 14 years old.
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.