"If I get to California, before I lose my mind,
I'll lay my burden on you for one last time."
California is everything we've come to expect from Ray Banks. It's taught, funny, human and deliciously fucked-up.
A novella can be a tricky thing. As a writer, it can lead to either rushing a story, or padding it out when it ran out of steam several thousand words earlier.
But, when you get the right story for the right length, a novella can become a perfect punch to the gut. A great novella can deliver just the right dose of character and story to suck you in without throwing in the kitchen sink to keep you hooked. What Banks does here is exactly what he does best; he gets in, he tells the story, he gets out. No messing, but plenty of mess.
Shuggie Boyle is fresh out of prison, and he's hell bent on doing things right this time. He avoids getting in fights, he counts to ten when he can feel his temper going, and he goes out of his way not to split your head open with a bottle. He's all about the long term goals these days. That's what he was taught in prison. Give yourself something to aim for, and all the small problems will sort themselves out. Whether Shuggie misses the point in what he's been told to do, or whether the people telling him missed the point in what he needed, that's up to you; point is, it's not going well. He sets his sights on the big dream. He's going to get to California, USA, after a brief stop off in California, Scotland.
And he's not going to Falkirk to settle old scores. He's not looking to hurt anybody or outstay his welcome. He just wants to pick up something that's his, and then get out of the way. Out to where the skies are blue and the wine is fresh. Or clear. Or whatever it is that wine is supposed to be.
The truth is that Shuggie knows only slightly less about California and wine than I do, and I know nothing. But ambition, ego and delusion make for great copy. If Icarus hadn't flown too close to the sun we wouldn't have had a story. Shuggie is Scottish, and doesn't know what the sun looks like, let alone how to aim for it, so he has to settle for a few vineyards.
And if you think I'm dropping in Greek myth just for shits and giggles think again. Banks has cultivated his own brand of Noir over the past few years, one that pits the ego and self-delusion of modern tragedy against the overbearing sense of fate and destiny from Greek and Roman storytelling. And the real essence of noir often lies in that battle, in my opinion. No matter how much Shuggie tells himself he can change, there's nothing he can do about the fact that the world doesn't want him to. He's stuck in repeat, he just doesn't know it. Banks' other character, Cal Innes, had a similar battle, and a large part of the tragedy came in Cal's eventual realisation of his place in the grand scheme.
There is a lot to admire here from a craft point of view. Faced with very little amount of time to set scene and character, Banks manages to rely on using the right amount of small detail to do both. He didn't have the luxury of letting us get to know Shuggie over the course of 60-70,000 words, so he gives us just enough to get a total grip on the character now. Shuggie spends a lot of time thinking about the way his Granda behaved, and possibly measuring himself against that ideal. He also drops in a few telling references to cinema, through both New Jack City and Sam Peckinpah. If a character has those as his reference points on male behaviour, then he's going to look to go down in the messiest way possible even if there's a much safer answer.
To go into anymore detail would be to spill the beans on what happens. What I will say is that it's not all grim and bleak. As we have come to expect, there is some nice fast dialogue and a wicked dark sense of humour. You'll laugh both with Shuggie and at him, and you'll wince each time events take a violent turn. The story doesn't let up and, if you're not careful, you'll get sucked in and pulled along in one sitting.
While I'm raving about the book it's only fair I take a moment to praise the publisher. Five Leaves Press has built up a great head of steam with british crime fiction. Not only have they been home to two PI novels from our own Russel D McLean, but they have established the Crime Express series of novellas, of which California is the latest. Each novella in the line is a tight little bundle of dark crime goodness, and look out for reviews of some of the newest additions on here in future. Amidst all the furore that's broken out online about ebooks and price-points, lets not lose sight of the fact there are publishers out there who are doing interesting things with print, and they need to be praised and supported.