Identity crisis in the Scottish tradition

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My Wife's Lovers

John Herdman

Black Ace Books, 9.95

SOME writers have a fairly linear career that, given the nature of current thinking, creates an impression of development, whether justified or not.

John Herdman works in a different way: his world is contained within a defined circle, in which he employs a set of familiar narrative patterns to make stories and novels of exquisite tension, tales that are often disturbing, even when they are grimly humorous.

Herdman's people are a distinct, immediately recognisable tribe: men (mostly) who, cast suddenly into a strange and troubling world, try their damnedest to get by, using all the conventions and polite apparatus civilisation has to offer.

More often than not, however, they are doomed to slide into apathy, terror or madness. In this, Herdman inhabits a well-established Scottish tradition, whose greatest practitioners include Hogg and Stevenson (the short fiction of Gogol and Dostoevsky also comes to mind), but his world is a wholly modern one, even if his characters will sometimes appear to have strayed there from some quieter, and more refined, sanctuary of forgotten decencies.

In the age of the soundbite, Herdman's prose pursues the complex and the elusive; in a culture that still pretends the surface appearance of sanity is enough for functioning selves to continue, he exposes the void at the heart of selfhood, and lets us see just how rich and complex that void is.

This is Herdman's forte: he exposes the gaps that can appear in a man's life and he reveals, with a queasy, occasionally almost hysterical humour, how ill-equipped our behavioural conventions are to deal with those gaps; at the same time, he also lets us see that there is something spiritual about this collapse, that something redemptive lurks in the shadows, waiting to be recognised, if only the characters could see it.

My Wife's Lovers, his 10th book of fiction, comprises 10 stories that, in their wit, their sense of a live tradition and their flashes of scary humour, are vintage Herdman, stories to linger over and savour, from the opening, title piece to the sly, self-referential closing story, 'Tom na Croiche', in which the central character comes to a strangely quiet, almost relaxed accommodation with the collapse of his own identity: "Well, I went home and took up my normal life again, and gradually these impressions were effaced from the forefront of my consciousness. But they remain there at the back of my mind, to haunt and trouble me.

"I'll never feel quite the same again about my 'self', never pronounce with the confidence of old on the nature of what I used to think of as my identity.

"Yet here I am, sitting at this entirely solid table with my pen in my hand. I have told you the story of this strange experience of mine. Judge yourself, reader, of my reality."

One might add: judge yourself, reader, of your own.