Vagabond Voices, £11
The rebel yells of new generations will always, thankfully, refresh the novel, but there is a place for writers with a wealth of experience behind them … in language, thought and experience.
Loading article content
I may be doing Les Wilson a disservice here as I have no idea what age he is. He has, however, had two successful careers already, as a journalist and a filmmaker. It shows in his first novel, Fire In The Head. There is a depth of knowledge about the history of the A-Bomb, the Gaeltacht, the workings of the Scottish newspaper industry and comparative religions.
This may suggest that Fire In The Head is a weighty, sombre tome. Actually, it’s a pretty racy read … and in every sense. Campbell Aaranson, Wilson’s fictional collaborator with Oppenheimer in the Manhattan Project, has been living reclusively, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in a quiet Hebridean island where he indulges in his other obsession, electronic music. Over the years a community of artists and poets has grown up, bound together by the flotsam of half-broken lives from the mainland.
All goes well enough until a Scottish industrialist decides to blow the island to smithereens and make a fortune out of the resulting aggregate for motorways. Herald journalist Jon Armour follows the story, and quickly gets in over his head. As High Noon approaches between the artists and the capitalist, Armour discovers rivalries and liaisons between the artists themselves in their supposed haven of peace and creativity. Wilson’s tale makes good use of all the ploys of crime thrillers: a ticking clock, a love rival, dangerous secrets, a girl and a gun.
It’s clever, writing a tale that hurls you along then sidesteps you into pondering what it is to be creative, where our society is leading and what makes good art. Here, the same human imagination that developed the atomic bomb now makes extraordinary music. All creativity, Wilson posits, has the potential for destruction; it may even need to destroy before it can make something new.
Alongside the central plot there’s an intriguing secondary narrative: a shamanic myth set in the violent early days of the colonisation of North America. Its purpose in the novel becomes clear, but it also serves as a counterpoint to Wilson’s theme … creativity begins with Creation itself.
Wilson likes to throw literary tricks at the page as first-time nov- elists do. Structurally, his book moves between first-person and third-person narrative, Armour’s newspaper articles and the unfolding Creation myth. It sounds cumber- some but somehow it’s not. Fire In The Head reveals an ambition, technically and thematically, that suggests a daredevil spirit … or a man who reckons he’s wasted too much time already before writing his first novel. Or both.