cover image Bucket of Tongues

Bucket of Tongues

Duncan McLean. W. W. Norton & Company, $13 (245pp) ISBN 978-0-393-31897-5

Committed, as Irvine Welsh is, to the stubborn inflections of Scots English, McLean (Bunker Man) seeks out the gritty and the down-at-heel. Unemployed and ""skint""--in Scots English dialect, dead broke--the characters in these 23 short stories shiver through the night and squabble the days away. The unemployed couple (she, 30; he, 28) in ""When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels"" return from a night at the pub to find that their ill-appointed flat has been robbed of their most precious possessions: a brand-new gas canister and a cache of mix tapes. ""Shoebox"" sees another young couple--here only ""the boy"" and ""the girl""--playing house and making light of pinching eggs and tins of beans from the grocer. In these stories, as in the collection's intense and lengthy centerpiece, ""Hours of Darkness,"" McLean's characters wade through dire straits with the wide ironic grins of those whose facade of cockiness might at any moment crack. Those not mooching or stealing are exploited by the needier characters. Formally experimental--""Thistle Story"" is not even a page long--McLean nonetheless does not come across as self-indulgent, writing clean, sober prose. With sharp, accurate descriptions of the natural world, or even of the phenomenon of kettle-steam hanging in a cold kitchen's atmosphere, McLean mends the hem of ragged lives and finds in the rawness that he writes about both beauty and humor. (May) FYI: Bucket of Tongues is a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award.