It’s been a log time since I’ve read any Iain Banks, not since I devoured The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Complicity in my early 20’s.
His fourth book feels like a departure from his earlier, more experimental novels. Espedair Street tells the story of the Danny Weir, former bass guitarist with the fictional Scottish band Frozen Gold. On the brink of killing himself Weird (as he’s known) decides instead to write a memoir documenting his chaotic decade in the drug- and booze-fuelled seventies music scene. From rags to riches, and and from world domination to personal tragedy, Weir has found himself washed up at only 31, with all the money in the world, but no purpose. Now a recluse, hiding his true identity from those closest to him and drinking his life away in Glasgow, can Danny come to terms with all that he had and all that he has lost?
Two days ago I decided to kill myself… Last night I changed my mind and decided to stay alive. Everything that follows is… just to try to explain.’
Espedair Street is neatly structured, with alternating chapters set in the past and the present. As Danny looks back on the history of Frozen Gold, from the early days of forming, rehearsing and landing a record deal to the stratospheric heights of sold-out stadiums, we come to gradually discover why he is now so lost.
With wit, and a touch of sadness, Banks explores what happens when all your dreams come true – easily and early – leaving little more to aim for.
This wasn’t the way I’d imagined it at all. I thought I’d find my band of rough-edged rockers, we;d argue and fight and eventually get a few tunes together, play small gigs in Paisley, then Glasgow, maybe a club or two in London, be dead broke, have vans break down on the M6, borrow money from parents and friends, have a session played on John Peel’s show, accept an offer from a tiny shoe-string label that’s go bust…at last sign with a big company produce at least one album that did nothing…play universities for a while, think about giving up, then bring out an earth-shatteringly good album, or have a brilliant but seemingly non-commercial single that topped the charts for two months. . . that was how I imagined it: lots of hard work.
Is it possible to go from that level of stardom to ordinary life? Danny feels the need to hide his real identity from his drinking pals McCann and Tommy, thinking that they won’t like or respect him if they know he has unlimited wealth. The very thing he always dreamt of is now the thing that is making him lonely.
There is some lovely characterisation here, even the briefest of characters leap off the page. The real triumph is that Banks maintains sympathy for Danny throughout – from his early tough childhood with a violent and then incarcerated father, through to super-stardom, Danny is always relatable and that’s no mean feat when describing a multi-millionaire rock star. Danny remains, at all times, human and in need of genuine human contact.
Banks has a real skill at the set piece. Highlights include a cocaine-fuelled nighttime aeroplane ride, a bar brawl that turns into outright carnage and an hilarious montage featuring a drunk and vomiting dog.
Does the novel descend into sentimentality at the end? Well, yes, a bit. The conclusion is neatly packaged and a little at odds with the rest of Danny’s chaotic life, but when a book is written with this much warmth, wit and heart, it’s hard to argue with the pleasure of a potentially happy ending.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 266
Number Remaining: 480
20 Books of Summer: 5/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!