‘Closing the book on Meantime and The Black Dog, what we are reminded of is not just the ways in which the formal boundaries between stand-up comedy and literature often dissolve under closer inspection, but that at their heart both art forms are concerned with the same thing: the tragicomedy of human experience.’
By Frankie Boyle
Published by Baskerville
The Black Dog
By Kevin Bridges
Published by Wildfire
In a publishing climate dominated by celebrity memoirs and political diatribes, you could be forgiven for approaching the debut novels of Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges with an air of cynicism. Meantime (Baskerville, July 22) and The Black Dog (Wildfire, August 22), both written during lockdown and published this summer, have been granted pre-ordained status as major literary events thanks to the reputations of the two beloved Scottish comics. Thankfully, neither make any apologies for this, and within just a handful of pages it becomes clear that these stand-up comics are more natural authors than most influencers or stale politicians.
Of course, this should come as no surprise. Since the New Wave in the 1950s and 60s, stand-up comedy has increasingly become a narrative artform anchored by storytelling. The performance of a stand-up comedy routine requires many abilities familiar to the novelist: a sensitive consideration of audience, a sophisticated understanding of structure, and the ability to elicit pathos. More and more comics play with the rules and expectations of the form in a manner reminiscent of post-modern literature, while the authored personas of many comics speak to a deep sensitivity for character and an ability to blur fiction and reality so characteristic of much contemporary fiction. In fact, it’s a wonder more haven’t taken to writing novels.
All of these traits come to the fore in Meantime and The Black Dog, which offer different but equally impressive examples of comic-authored debuts. In Meantime, the drug-addled Felix McAveety teams up with his unstable neighbour Donny and dying crime-writer Jane Pickford to try and solve the murder of his friend Marina. Traversing post-referendum Glasgow in a haze of valium, LSD and whatever else they can get their hands on, the three unlikely PIs uncover a chain of lies and deception reaching out from local independence groups through youth centres all the way to the pharmaceutical industry and police force. Throughout, Boyle illustrates a genuine gift for imagery (‘I opened the curtains and watched a seagull laugh across a shock of morning sky’), and in the hilarious McAveety, his characteristically crushing social observations are given new life. Like with Boyle’s stand-up, however, this critique is often undercut by an implicit self-effacement, as shown in an interaction between McAveety and his therapist:
‘You’re swearing a lot lately.’
‘Maybe Scottish people have been imprisoned in the English language and we are trying to blow our way out.’
‘Yes… Scottish people weren’t all Gaelic speakers, you know.’
‘I know everybody needs to feel like they’re right all the time, but I’m often wrong, and I’m okay with it.’
Boyle is unafraid to approach the bigger topics with the kind of balance and self-awareness often absent in the age of social media, though – like McAveety – he often hides this behind a front of humour and cynicism. Like the most effective stand-up comedy routines, it is only when the novel ends that its deeper message becomes clear: set against the polarizing backdrop of a referendum during which ‘everybody felt like they were right’, the fatal duplicitousness and mind-bending punchline of Meantime shows that, for Boyle, the ability to admit to being wrong is not only acceptable, but potentially life-saving.
Meantime is a cerebral novel, and Boyle makes no qualms about that. In a move reminiscent of Muriel Spark’s The Comforters, McAveety continually worries that his life is part of a simulation. A funny and familiar expression of drug-induced paranoia, it also winks towards the authorship and construction of a novel that is complemented by its deconstruction of the crime fiction genre and deep concern with the notion of truth. All assumptions are questioned, and a running theme of rewriting history is surmised when McAveety notes, ‘Describing fiction as history and vice versa was very much Donnie’s vibe. Maybe it made sense, or as close to sense as we could make.’ For Boyle, there is no truth, only the performance of truth, and in fiction as on stage, he takes this to extreme and sophisticated lengths for great comedic effect.
While less feverish and fast-paced, the Glasgow constructed in Kevin Bridges’ The Black Dog is too written with the familiar ease of the local, drifting between the worlds of two men: college student and Morrisons shelf-stacker Declan, whose dreams of being a writer appear to be halted by a combination of depression and a run-in with a local gangster, and James Cavani, a successful writer from the same area who has returned home from the US to care for his sister. The stories of these two men are set on an unlikely collision course and Bridges reels in the reader with an impressive pacing that belies a debut—this is clearly a comic well-versed in structure. The novel moves comfortably between vernacular and standard English narration, exhibiting the same balance between authenticity and universality that undercuts so much of Bridges’ comedic appeal. His is a voice sensitive to pace, informed by the natural rhythms and schisms of speech, and his dialogue – especially in the character of Doof Doof, Declan’s philosopher-come-greenskeeper sidekick – sparkles with the wit and character of the best comics’ social observation:
‘You’d be surprised how fucked up some people feel, Declan. Embrace the sadness sometimes, man, get to know it, it’s normal, man, it’s human. Remember it’s your heed, it’s your home, your home game, don’t let it be an away game, man, a tough place to go, fucking Tynecastle or somewhere.’
Bridges’ novel is no doubt a more straightforward story than Meantime, but The Black Dog, too, explores questions of authorship and the distinctions between truth and fiction. ‘The Black Dog’ is the name given to Declan’s script that he sends to James Cavani, a script he hopes depicts ‘real life shit’, ‘all the frustration, the anger, the confusion, whatever it was […] authentic, propelled by real-life energy, real experiences.’ Declan’s approach to writing is a cypher for Bridges’ wider feelings about art and stand-up comedy. It is precisely the magic of Bridges’ comedy – his ability to mine the humour in the everyday ‘real life shit’ of working-class Glasgow – that gives life to The Black Dog, and he is acutely aware of this, drawing a fine line between fiction and real-life experience that gifts his characters a familiarity and compels us to invest in their story.
Both Meantime and The Black Dog draw us in like the setup of a great joke, hit us with the punchline, but do so in ways characteristic of each comic. Meantime is a jet-black hallucinogenic noir full of biting cynicism, blacker, ironically, than The Black Dog, which for all its vivid representations of the everyday struggles of working-class life and open intention to ‘embrace the sadness’, has earnest hope pitched firmly at its centre. Yet much like Boyle’s stand-up, if one is willing to chip away at the brash exterior, what is revealed is a genuinely tender portrait of apathy, loss and redemption not unlike Bridges’ work. Closing the book on Meantime and The Black Dog, what we are reminded of is not just the ways in which the formal boundaries between stand-up comedy and literature often dissolve under closer inspection, but that at their heart both art forms are concerned with the same thing: the tragicomedy of human experience. So sit back, open a can or order a takeaway, and enjoy these two entertaining rides. It’s fucking life, man.
Meantime by Frankie Boyle is published by Baskerville, priced £14.99.
The Black Dog by Kevin Bridges is published by Wildfire, priced £20.