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The Hard Drinking Men of Scotland

Written by Eli Katz on Wednesday, July 13 2011 and posted in Columns

Eli Katz discusses and links to some of the best short fiction available for free on the Web. This week's pick: Des Dillon's "The Blue Hen."

The "hard man" is one of the most common protagonists in contemporary Scottish literature. Irvine Welsh, Duncan Maclean, and Alasdair Gray, among many others, have written prolifically about young, dysfunctional Scottish men who have little money and even less direction. Welsh, who received international acclaim for his novel Trainspotting, writes about drug addicts lashing out simply to disrupt their otherwise tedious lives.

There is a long tradition of hard man writing in Scotland. An early example is Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle." This 1926 poem is a lengthy, stream-of-consciousness appraisal of Scotland and the place that Robert Burns inhabits in Scottish hearts. But it is also a poem that captures the crazy, disoriented feeling of being drunk for days at a time.

The hard man literature is, ultimately, a nationalistic enterprise that uses Scottish idiom to explore Scottish heritage and contemporary Scottish issues. From MacDiarmid's verse to Welsh's dialogue, the wild mix of slang, neologism, and dialect defines all these works. But it's an odd national literature because while it demonstrates and celebrates the uniqueness of Scottish culture, it also simultaneously condemns it. These modern Scottish heroes are low-life drunks and junkies. Their quest is not to find or save anyone but, rather, to destroy themselves in preposterously macho ways. I am no expert on Scotland, but I imagine these troubled hard men reflect the uneasy relationship that contemporary Scottish writers have with the issue of Scottish self-determination. Scottish writers, by virtue of being Scottish, are helping maintain and develop Scottish culture. And yet, undoubtedly, these writers want their work to be recognized as something greater and more universal than a quirky, regional literature.

Not all hard man literature is relentlessly bleak. In fact, much of it is darkly comic. The short story I have selected this week, Des Dillon's "The Blue Hen," is an amusing story about two guys who use the logic of drug dealing to raise chickens. What makes this piece so enjoyable is its language. Dillon has a unique, almost infectious narrative voice. If you like "The Blue Hen," then check out his first novel Me and Ma Gal. It, too, is a beautiful read. (Below is a photo of Mr. Dillon, in an apparently sober moment, talking about his work.)

Written or Contributed by: Eli Katz

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