It is difficult to know where to start with a writer as good as Warner and a novel as diverse and brilliant as The Man Who Walks. The danger is that you’ll end up sounding like movie-blurb whilst bandying words like ‘genius’, ‘spiralling, rip-roaring’ and ‘provocative’. It is difficult to precisely quantify why he is so good and what it is about the book that makes it quite so wince-inducingly, envious-glancingly impressive. For sure you or I will probably never write a line as good as any you might choose at random from The Man Who Walks, let alone knit a few of them together into a paragraph. Funny, violent, inventive, odd, savage – it is all these things and more, combining scurrilous rumour and low-down tramp humour with high-brow classicism and a plot stolen from Gulliver’s Travels then fenced to Robert Louis Stevenson. The Man Who Walks takes the burlesque, winding plot and domestic humour from The Sopranos and melds it with the sharp wit and bleak suburban deathwish of Morvern Callar to produce a novel of satisfying heft, weighty and witty at the same time.
It is clear that critics can’t really pin him down, either – on the cover of this edition no less a paper than the Telegraph call him ‘unique and treasurable’, and their sister Sunday discuss his ‘surreal and very original imagination’. They can’t stand him, of course, and their blurb is code for ‘what the bloody hell is this all about?’ Which is obviously a Good Thing. Warner defies categorisation on purpose, spurning genres and convention, throwing out ideas and images like a dervish. Like Kelman and Ellroy it is often actually physically difficult to read.
Interviewed by spikemagazine.com whilst writing it, Warner described The Man Who Walks (initially tentatively titled At a Fair Old Rate of Knots) as:
Travelogue from the point of view of a homeless guy who has no choice but to travel, and a critique of past Highland/literary/historical landmarks
(full interview here).
The book delivers on this double purpose, intertwining an attack on monument and history with the bonkers adventures of the Nephew and his Uncle (The Man Who Walks of the title), one chasing the other, through the Highlands, Dublin and suburban nowhereshire. Any novel which has the refrain ‘yacuntya’ running through it should be celebrated, and Warner’s strange, demotic meets scholarly writing style is particularly suited to this roguish trip through tourist Scotland.
Barely holding itself together with a plot, the novel is really a picaresque jaunt through the Highlands as the Nephew encounters a cast of weird, wonderful and slightly unpleasant characters in his quest to find his Uncle. The book is buoyed along by Warner’s seemingly endless and hilarious in-jokes, rhetorical flourishes, puns, accents, monologues, rants and energy the lack of which made Lynne Ramsay’s slow and cerebral version of Morvern Callar (2002) such a frustrating film. A selection at random: The Man Who Walks has a problem – if he drinks he cannot go up even a slight gradient, leading to his wandering around and around on the flat until the drink leaves his system; yacuntya!; the Nephew wandering into an old pub full of ‘a spectacularly decrepit clientele’ with a ‘dreary, humourless hush about it’ – turns out to be a nursing home.
Warner’s novel and protagonist eventually run out of purpose (intentionally), as the Nephew – kneecaps newly broken – crawls across Culloden field covered in fake corpses for a movie of Kidnapped. A figure for whom constant movement and alertness to the ingrained history of the land are fundamental is left struggling across a false landscape of commodification and emptiness. Scotland and Scottishness are throughout the novel turned into empty counters, resources to be developed and virtualised. The Nephew explores the disjunction between the mapped, imposed cultural identity of the land and the material reality of living in it. He is a figure who constantly challenges identity models – a T/traveller, a learned writer with a drugs problem who is both Scottish and anti-Scottish, no fixed abode or identity, never named except as The Nephew or Macushla, sexually uncategorisable, all over the place.
Warner has produced a text that echoes Rabelais and Pantagruel, Tom Jones, The Unfortunate Traveller and The Dharma Bums – carnivalesque trips of excess and corporeality. Larger than life, cleverer and drunker than you, stumbling, starving hysterical naked, The Man Who Walks kicks serious arse. Read it now.