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Sex, Scotland And Socrates In 'Old Men In Love'

Jun 2, 2010

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Scottish schoolmaster John Tunnock could not finish writing a book. He'd begin a manuscript on the trial of Socrates, only to become frustrated with details and get distracted with an idea he had about the Italian Renaissance. At the time of his death in 2007, at age 67 (foul play is suspected), he had a handful of such half-finished manuscripts about topics ranging from ancient Athens to 2003 Glasgow, along with a few diaries, and reminisces of his childhood after his mother was killed in the London Blitz. His heir Lady Sara Sim-Jaeger sought to find a suitable home for them. They have no real publishing value on their own, she thought, but perhaps a writer like Alasdair Gray, "who clearly has a high opinion of his own talents," could bring some form to the miscellanea and cobble it into a manuscript.

Like the best of Gray's work, Old Men in Love is funny and profane, but with a shuddering anger to the politics. Despite its swinging widely through time and space to portray men in power, their vulnerabilities and the perils of unchecked desire, perhaps the novel's best section is its most mundane and personal: Gray's portrayal of John Tunnock as a young boy trying to find his (lonely) place in working-class Glasgow. With a dead mother and a father he never knew, he's left to two plucky maiden aunts. His coming of age includes sherry, comic book superheroines in very tight costumes, his discovery of pornography and being discovered with pornography by his schoolmaster.

Tunnock does not exist, of course. The lines between the real and fictional, human beings and characters, have always been a little blurry in Gray's work. In his 1981 debut novel Lanark, he created fictional literary critic Sidney Workman to limn that book's and Gray's failings and disappointments. Workman reappears at the end of Old Men in Love, insisting that he's not a fictional creation (he is) and reasserting his belief that Gray is a middling talent. Fantastical Gray works like Lanark and 1982, Janine (1984) include baldly autobiographical passages hidden behind the dragons and S&M role playing.

Gray is telling the truth about one thing: Old Men in Love is a hodgepodge of older material, "a collection of scraps from a tired writer's bottom drawer," as Workman puts it. But it's Gray's bottom drawer we're scraping, not Tunnock's. Some bits are reworked from newspaper articles, others from discarded stories and plays. The surprising thing is that it holds together as a cohesive novel. This may be the dregs, but with a writer like Alasdair Gray, it's worth the trip all the way to the bottom.

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