It’s rare to find a novel with passages you want to underline as you read that’s also heart-wrenchingly sad, let alone one that has such a specific sense of time and place that it reveals some painful universals. But Kevin MacNeil’s 2005 novel, The Stornoway Way, does all these things.
It’s a first-person narrative, ostensibly told to MacNeil by “R. Stornoway” (i.e., “arse torn away”), a would-be artist and musician who has returned to the small town of Stornoway on the island of Lewis off Scotland’s west coast. He piddles with art and music and dallies with girls, but what he does mostly is drink. A lot. And he makes pithy observations about himself and the people around him. My favorite bit regards the Gaelic mafia: “The Gaelic mafia is a touchy subject in Lewis. Outwith the Highlands it is said, ‘The Gaelic mafia made me an offer I couldn’t . . . understand.'” He also includes various Gaelic terms as footnotes, some historical and some newly-minted, as in Griais: when your finger automatically presses 9 before dialling [sic] a telephone number from home.
But while the first two-thirds is as eminently underlinable as early Douglas Adams, MacNeil is not being funny for its own sake. He’s setting us up for a sudden turn to seriousness that jars the reader as much as it does R. Stornoway. And when Stornoway discovers unsuspected depths in himself, he also realizes the size of the emptiness inside him. Here MacNeil’s poetic bent (he’s also published the poetry collections Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides and Be Wise, Be Otherwise) provides imagery of absolutely aching beauty (I won’t quote anything since it would be a bit of a spoiler, but pp. 223-224 would break the stoniest heart). The final pages are painful, both to the character and the reader, and leave one feeling as numb and battered as “R. Stornoway” himself.
At the core of The Stornoway Way is alcohol: drinking is what the narrator and his friends do. And it’s what the natives of Lewis have done for generations. (I’m from a town of 300 deep in the swamps of west Tennessee, and we have a similar culture; he gets all the motivations exactly right). McNeil does a good job drawing the reader into this lifestyle without being didactic about its dangers. And what finally undoes R. Stornoway is not alcohol, but the realization of what the alcohol is hiding.
In his review, The Independent critic Brian Dillon calls The Stornoway Way “an entropic tale of energies sparked to life and quenched by landscape, language and culture.” Okay, if you feel the need to phrase it that way, I guess I agree. I’d call it an extended meditation on what the island culture of Lewis does to its people, especially its young. By dealing with these specifics, MacNeil connects with some universals about the loss of a sense of purpose, the hurt we inflict without really meaning to, and the hopelessness that can seem, in its depths (depths found symbolically at the bottom of a bottle), to be masquerading as hope.
Here’s a recent interview with author Kevin MacNeil.