Alan Warner came to notice with his excellent Morvern Callar in the mid-1990s. There was something strikingly energetic and original about his writing, which drew comparisons with the vernacular styles of AL Kennedy, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Kelman, Warner has said, gave him a sense of what Scottish writing could be. Warner came from a family that did not read and it took him some time to find his compass.
When I started Their Lips Talk of Mischief, I had the overwhelming sense that I had encountered it before. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising. I read the Irish-American novelist JP Donleavy diligently 30 years ago, The Ginger Man (1955) and others. I have read Martin Amis equally diligently, particularly Money (1984), and more recently Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). I loved Withnail and I. All of these works turn on the proposition that there is something intrinsically interesting about misogynist boyos and the scrapes they get themselves into. Such characters are usually penniless and frustrated as they try to produce an earth-shattering literary achievement. They burn with ambition but find the actual writing difficult. This rite of passage in a young man’s life has become a trope.
Their Lips Talk of Mischief is about two such men. It is set in 1984, mostly in the suburbs of northwest London. The novel opens in an accident and emergency department. The Scottish narrator, Douglas Cunningham, has been asked to leave university for failing to complete any essays in years: he is walking into the hospital hoping to spend the night there, warm and unobserved, when he sees “a tall and handsome young man of my own age, standing, leaning against the wall by the doors with one leg canted up, wearing a grey mackintosh; he pulled a cigarette down from his mouth and tossed it like a dart so that it burst on the tarmac in orange sparks.”
This sentence alone gives the reader a taste of what is to come. A pedant could say that cigarettes rarely explode on tarmac. But Warner’s is a world where small incidents are given an intense, and mostly successful, charge. In a way the rather frantic style of the novel mimics the verbose friendship of the characters in their ambition to explode on to the world. Their conversations are reminiscent of the ironic, playful and self-conscious dialogue of Donleavy, O’Brien and other writers of the Celtic fringe.
We are aware right from the off that Warner is determined to write something original. The result is a slight tendency to over-reach, but he soon settles down to deploy his many talents. We also realise quite quickly that the book can be read as metafiction: it is largely about writing and literary references are scattered throughout.
The man Douglas meets at the hospital is a Londoner of Welsh descent. Named Llewellyn Smith, he is unemployed and uses the word “boyo” frequently. Llewellyn is in A&E because the stitches on his chest have burst open soon after a heart operation. He and Douglas soon realise that they share literary ambitions and when, some hours later, Llewellyn emerges from surgery he offers Douglas a bed in his dank and dark council flat.
The two of them become very close very quickly. They drink huge amounts of alcohol; and despite the fact that they are both penniless and jobless, they manage to spend long hours in their local, whimsically called the Five or Six Bells, talking literature. Llewellyn wants to “influence the form” for ever; a mere novel is not nearly enough. Pub life is closely documented, in the manner of Amis. Their drinks are listed lovingly and often – perhaps too often.
Back in the flat, Llewellyn has a baby with his wonderfully beautiful girlfriend, Aoife. He has, however, a number of problems with Aoife, who is proposing to go back to her modelling career. He is wildly jealous, convinced she will be seduced by randy advertising men and that he will be stuck with the infant. Douglas takes up many of the baby-minding duties, and he falls deeply in love with Aoife. (Warner’s knowledge of childcare is impressive.) Aoife has an attractive and overbearing friend, Abby, also a model; she is moderately interested in sleeping with Douglas while also having sex with Llewellyn.
Despite their high ambitions, the two men make no progress and have to take a commission from a posh publisher to write blurbs for his B list. There is a background rumble of the Thatcher era, which provides an uneasy context in a time of change. But the main feature is the anarchic friendship of these two as they drink and talk and drink again.
Their Lips Talk of Mischief is moving, funny, richly peopled and written with great gusto.
Their Lips Talk of Mischief, by Alan Warner, Faber, RRP£14.99, 320 pages
Justin Cartwright is author of ‘Lion Heart’ (Bloomsbury)
Illustration by Clare Mallison