Thursday, August 28, 2008

Devil's Footprints

The first John Burnside novel to be published in the U.S. is called The Devil's Footprints. Every now and then Burnside will have a poem printed in the TLS, and I very often admire those short rueful poems, so I pursued this novel, which it turns out is up for a couple of different British literary prizes, and surely, yes, it is crisply written, and often (to me) even funny. In the scene below, a 35-year-old man fails to communicate with a 14-year-old girl.

I was trying to ignore the TV; I don't much like television, unless there's a movie on. I like movies. Old Hollywood, French films, films by Kurosawa and Kieslowski. Franju. Wajda. Godard. Hazel's tastes were somewhat different – or maybe she didn't have any particular tastes, maybe she was just happy to watch whatever came on. For a while, she sat smirking and giggling at some sitcom that I'd never even heard of; then she spent half an hour surfing all four of the available channels, flicking to and fro between some kind of drama and a documentary about sharks, till she eventually settled on an American-made hospital series. I kept trying to engage her, to distract her from the melodrama, but she had gone into a trance, only half aware that I was in the room at all, her eyes fixed on the screen. In between the operations and the love scenes, she watched the commercials.

"God," I said, finally. "Do you always watch television like this?"

She nodded. "Absolutely," she said.

I glanced at the screen. A man in green scrubs was arguing with a woman in a white coat. They both seemed overly clean and far too well groomed to be emergency room workers. "So what's the attraction?" I asked.


"I said: What's the attraction? Don't you know what's going to happen in the end? More or less?"

She nodded again. "Absolutely," she said.

"Well," I said. "If you'll just turn if off for a moment, we can talk about what we need to do "

"Shhh!" She looked at me. "Sorry," she said quickly. "But this is a good bit."

I looked back at the screen. It was the same two people, arguing. "How do you know?" I asked.

 A standard story of male angst and isolation. Yet the jacket blurb from the Guardian gets at the playfulness and charm that make this sad book diverting  "The Devil's Footprints is a classic tale with an old-fashioned, gripping plot. But it is also helplessly good at the things Burnside loves best: geography, the neighbours, the way people's lives go, and the way people's other, secret lives turn out."

The marshland, the birds, the weather. This low coastal Scottish landscape is made to speak for characters who don't have much to say for themselves.