Book review: Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz

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Be not misled. This novel’s title refers to thirty-something Goalie, its central (and possibly only real) character, who, even in his youth, playing back-streets kickabout, never kept goal.

Naw Much of a Talker

by Pedro Lenz

Freight Books, 155pp, £8.99

His real name is Ernst, though he’s far from earnest, asserts his sort-of girlfriend, Regula.

Above all, this “naw much of a talker” (Regula’s words again) won’t cease talking. She complains that his talk is all stories. “Ah wis talking so as nae tae hiv tae listen,” Goalie recalls. Is Regula right? Are Goalie’s stories his protectors, his distraction from the truth, an avoidance of facing, and of revealing, who he might be?

Stories, and how they fulfil several functions — as entertainment, or how we present ourselves to the world, or by making sense of the world around us — lies at the heart of this novel novel.

Goalie is Swiss. In Donal McLaughlin’s lively, ear-grabbing, subtly attentive, pawky translation, Goalie purveys his Swiss-German words in the fat-frying, guttural, bubbling vernacular and accent of swaggering Glasgow. “For a Dear Green place” runs the book’s dedication by Pedro Lenz, its Swiss author, inset, who spent six months there imbibing its powerful linguistic refreshment, and being inspired in the creation of his “tragic low-life hero” (the words of the publisher) by the work of vernacular writers such as James Kelman.

Lenz and McLaughlin have bracingly turbo-charged the idiom. This is a novel that should be proclaimed, spoken aloud, to be appreciated and (literally) understood. Flat on the page there are (at the outset) tics of language that, for readers unused to following written versions of Glasgow speech, may cause the eye to trip and stumble and the ear to be deceived –“hid” meaning had, “kid” for could, “kin” for can, “his” for has – where the spoken sound is represented by a word (with its own different meaning) in standard English.

Once you’ve tuned in, you won’t switch off. Goalie’s stream of unstoppable, introverted narration creates its own version of linguistic white-water rafting: all stops and starts, its bounce and dip and sideways lurches, its slower contemplative passages contrasting with the spray-gun verbal splashes when hot-wired Goalie loses the plot with one of his mates and, at last, with Regula, the only love of his life.

The wooing of Regula is one of two parallel plots that flow through the novel from first to last. The other centres on Goalie’s need to understand how and why he has spent a year in jail for possession of drugs. He did someone a favour. Though neither innocent nor guilty, he’s now on the shopping list of the cops.

Herr Gross, the policeman with whom Goalie jousts during bouts of questioning, is perceptively and sympathetically realised, though marginal. The more central figures – Uli, Goalie’s lifelong buddy; Buddy, Regula’s boorish first boyfriend; Paco, who runs a fast-food takeaway joint; junkie Stofer, and Pesche, owner of the café-bar where Regula is a barmaid, seem mostly present to move the clunky narrative furniture around; they are not strong presences in their own right.

At first unemployed, and living alone, Goalie decides to clean up his act. He rejects drugs and cajoles Regula into joining him on a holiday to Spain, to a house Stofer claims to have inherited. There, discovering the truth about the ownership of the house, Goalie hatches his strategy to unearth the facts and identities of those who put him inside.

Hints of tragedy and farce are in constant cahoots. Goalie’s whimsical, shifting mentality creates a grey, mizzling sense of his unfulfilment. He lacks real empathy with (or insight into) the plights of those around him. His limitations limit the novel. Its opening page contains his only suggested glimmer of self-revelation when, just out of jail, he approaches the café-bar, freezing and skint: ‘Ma heart wis like a soaking-wet flair-cloth,’ he remembers.

As the tale moves forward, its sense of Goalie’s continuing existential limbo becomes reminiscent of those popular literary oeuvres of 50 years ago, Beckett meets Camus, with added laughs, for McLaughlin’s translation brings to the text all the wit and wisdom Goalie can muster.

Lenz’s book is a verbal spree, a tour de force, its glass perpetually half empty, yet, somehow raised in its final paragraph nonetheless to toast Goalie’s future. A little guy lost, who would be profound.