Book review: The Making of Mickey Bell, by Kellan MacInnes

Kellan MacInnes's first book, Caleb's List, was on the short leet for the Saltire Society's First Scottish Book Award in 2013. The original list was made by Caleb George Cash in 1899 and detailed all the mountains and big hills that could be seen from the top of Arthur's Seat. Mountains feature in MacInnes's new novel, this time Munros.

Kellan MacInnes
Kellan MacInnes

His hero Mickey Bell is living in squalor in a Glasgow tenement and has been infected with the HIV virus by his pretty but mentally disturbed, perhaps psychotic, boyfriend. His spirits are understandably low, but with the help of a determined and highly organised adviser who knows all the Social Security ropes, he gets a Disability Living Allowance. So far, so good. Meanwhile he also gets himself a dog and, to escape depression, takes to hill-walking. Following a guidebook – instructions recorded in the text with map references supplied, he starts climbing Munros, hoping eventually to have climbed them all. However his petulant and aggrieved ex-boyfriend reports him to the authorities who – not unreasonably, you may think – take a dim view of paying disability benefit to a chap apparently capable of climbing mountains. The author’s opinion seems to be different: the mountain climber is entitled to his disability allowance because the British Government is in the hands of very rich men.

Be that as it may, Mickey takes off to the hills with his faithful –and very engaging – dog, and what we have is a sort of Highland road movie, rich in encounters, some unpleasantly violent, some comic, some touching, a few exhilarating. McInnes is very good at domestic and family scenes. Mickey has a loving auntie who insists that he attends a family wedding and hires a kilt for him. It’s a good scene; he makes a click there too, and the suggestion is that his love-life may eventually run smooth.

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The story is set against the background of the independence referendum, but MacInnes has nothing new or interesting to say about it. Indeed the referendum is really no more than decoration. There’s a spot of fairly predictable satirical stuff about politics, but it’s drearily conventional.

This is a pity. When the author’s imagination is engaged, and his prejudices laid aside or forgotten, he often writes very well. He has a keen eye for oddity and a sympathy for the diverse characters who cross Mickey’s path. His description of wild country and mountain scenery are precise and vivid, and he conveys his delight in the mountains alluringly. Mickey himself becomes a convincing and in many ways admirable character, certainly more likeable than he seems in the early chapters. One does get the sense that he is on an emotional journey, learning more about himself and making himself into a better man. So the novel carries a message of optimism. One might remark also that the relationship between Mickey and the dog is tenderly and charmingly done. A novel that seems to start out at the school of early James Kelman becomes rather different, as indeed late Kelman is different. His influence is clear, and on the whole good.

Nevertheless there are weaknesses. Scenes repeatedly go on long after they have made their point. MacInnes has little sense of the value of economy, though economy is what this novel cries out for. The structure is ramshackle, but even a picaresque novel, which this to some extent is, benefits from a firm structure. Likewise the different registers jar. The political passages are jejune, in contrast to the felt life of Mickey’s wanderings and his developing maturity. MacInnes may be seeking to convey the gulf between the humanity of the individuals – Mickey and those he meets on his journey – and the indifference, even callousness, of officialdom, but it’s not enough merely to state the latter. Even the devils deserve their own tune.

As a whole, therefore, the novel doesn’t work, lacking coherence. Yet parts are good, even very good. MacInnes has real talent, but at present the talent is unharnessed, and when his imagination is at a low ebb, he slips too comfortably into cliché.

*The Making of Mickey Bell by Kellan MacInnes, Sandstone Press, 399pp, £8.99