To resist betrayal, in spite of any flattery; to preserve one’s roots, regardless of temptations; to struggle as if any defeat meant the loss of one’s principles or, even worse, of one’s identity. As if, to Dan “Big Man” Scoular and to the author himself, the world outside the native Graithnock was rotten and corrupt like a putrid den. This novel by William McIlvaney resembles a Medieval morality play, as its plot is firmly grounded on a extremely intense symbolic premise.
To “Big Man” betrayal takes the form of the deal proposed by Matt Mason, the big boss of Glasgow’s underworld: to hire him for a bare-knuckle boxing fight against another poor fellow, just to settle a dispute between mobsters. To do so, “Big Man” will have to come to the big and cold city, and leave his community, his family, and his loved ones.
The scene in which Matt Mason offers Dan Scoular money is designed as a biblical temptation. Money, which is cursed and comes from drug trade, almost takes the form of a wicked gift from the Devil. And the very Devil hides behind Matt Mason: a serious, well dressed Devil of a few words, who promises Big Man power and a wealthy life, but only if he gives him his soul. This is the pivotal issue of the whole story, the source of the main conflict that runs through the novel over and over again.
At first Dan Scoular cannot resist the temptation. Just at the beginning of the novel he is uncertain, full of doubts about himself and an easy prey for external circumstances, such as unemployment, a troubled marriage and the aching sense of the uselessness of his own life. But slowly his doubts will pass. And when his compassion for the beaten fighter gives him the opportunity to react, he will be able to perceive the dangers of impending damnation and to recover a sort of oblique integrity towards others and himself. Then he will be ready to face a far stronger and more cunning enemy than his opponent in the ring. An adversary (maybe the ultimate Adversary), who is the most ambiguous and most powerful of all.
A really compelling, superb book. A tragedy exceeding our own humanity.
Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Ester Tossi)