Sadly, I had never heard of William McIlvanney until his death in December, 2015 when numerous bloggers I follow extolled his praises and mourned the loss to the literary world. Looking into this, I found McIlvanney was an award-winning Scottish author writing mostly about early 20th century Scottish culture in and around the Glasgow area and in a small town, Graithnock, which is based on his hometown of Kilmarnock, some 32 minutes southwest of Glasgow. Docherty (1975) is the third of eight novels he wrote, and several of the characters are revived in a later novel called The Kiln (1996). In addition to his eight novels, he also published a collection of short stories called Walking Wounded. His first book, Remedy is None, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Docherty won the Whitbread Novel Award, and The Kiln won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. The Big Man (1985) was made into a film starring Liam Neeson, and his short story Dreaming (from Walking Wounded, 1989) was filmed by BBC Scotland in 1990 and won a BAFTA.
From the cover: Tam Docherty was only five foot four –but wherever he stood he established a territory. The people who lived in High Street, Graithnock came there because of poverty, yet Tam moved as if he were there by choice. And his name was not a pleasant sound to more than one manager in the south-west of Scotland.
The story of the Docherty family of Graithnock begins with the birth of Tam’s son — Conn Docherty. Born into a community divided between Catholic and Protestant, Conn, the youngest of four in a family that can scarce support one more mouth to feed, observes everything about everyone. He watches his mother, Jenny’s, respect for Tam and Tam’s appreciation of her. He sees his sister Kathleen trapped in an increasingly abusive marriage, his brother Mick go off to war and return disabled, his brother Angus stand up to his father and challenge the mining company management. He sees the respect the men down on the corner have for his father, too, and how his father seldom resorts to his fists but when he does, others quietly back off. When his grandmother dies, Conn sees how his aunt wants no responsibility for his grandfather but Jenny and Tam do what’s right despite the added hardship. He learns to read and dream, but what can become of dreams on the poverty-stricken High Street.
Historically, it was the time of labour unions and the great war, of hard work and deprivation, of laughter and closeness, and even division within families. The chatter from the men on the corner, the singing from the pub, the desperation of wartime, the wild abandonment of youth, the love and decency of his parents, fairly leaps off the pages as Conn grows to manhood, absorbing it all and trying to find his own place in it all. The men are rough, the labour intense, and the times desperate. It could have been a mining town anywhere but it’s Scotland and it’s authentic. McIlvanney has been quoted as saying, he tried to ‘give flesh to “the unfulfilled stature” of the dreams of his parents and the Kilmarnock community that he came from’ (The Guardian, Dec. 5/2016) and he certainly achieved that. Written in a Scottish dialect, you pick of the rhythm and meaning of it quickly and it draws you into the richness of characters. * * * * *