Boyracers and Pack Men

This is a special two book review.‘Boyracers’ was Alan Bissett’s first novel and features a band of four teenagers as the central characters.  In his latest novel ‘Pack Men’ readers are reacquainted with 3 of these characters as young men. Although both of these books are perfectly suited to being read without the other I decided to read them in sequence. 

Please note both these books are intended for a 16+ audience

Boyracers;  Alan BissettPolygon; 2011 & Pack Men; Alan Bissett; Hachette; 2011
Book Summary (taken from Amazon UK):
Since its first publication ten years ago Boyracers has established itself as a contemporary Scottish cult classic. It is a totally fresh, savvy and supremely honest take on being young, naive and hopeful, and the pains of living life at hyperspeed in a mad pop-culture world. It is fast, pacy and funny – an exhilarating joyride through the formative years of four Falkirk teenagers.

Book Summary (taken from Amazon UK):
In 2008 Glasgow Rangers Fc reached a major European final. It was held in Manchester, a short hop from Scotland into England. Cue a colossal invasion: the largest movement of Scots over the border in history and the first time in hundreds of years that an English city was taken over. Chaos reigned.
Pack Men is the fictional story of three pals and one child trapped inside this powderkeg. In a city rocking with beer, brotherhood and sectarianism, the boys struggle to hold onto their friendship, as they turn on each other and the police turn on them. And somehow one of them has to disclose a secret which he knows the others won’t want to hear…

Literature for Lads Review:

‘Boyracers’ is a wonderful coming of age story which gives us an insight into the lives of 4 teenage boys growing up in the Scottish town of Falkirk.  Bissett brilliantly captures what it feels like to be a teenager with the pages almost dripping with angst, sexual tension and the fear of not really knowing where your life is going.

The story is told through the eyes of fifteen year old Alvin with his slightly older friends, Frannie, Dolby and Brian all playing their part in the story.  We witness a number of Alvin’s teenage milestones, including getting drunk for the first time, driving for the first time and his first sexual experience.  Bissett describes these moments wonderfully, making it feel like we are almost back there reliving the moments ourselves.

The friendship the four boys hold is a central theme in the book. It gives them something to be alive for in what they view as a dead end town which is going nowhere. Each of the boys is dealing with issues of their own (an alcoholic mother, being stuck in a dead end job) but they attach a unbelievable value to the friendship.

As the book progress’ it’s clear Alvin has an opportunity to move away from Falkirk and ‘the boys’.  The way he struggles to wrench himself away from the rest of the group will resonate with all teenagers as they face the uncertainty of making the next step in their life.

Pop culture references are littered throughout the book and despite the book being published ten years ago they do not make it feel dated. Rather they remind us how important music, film and television were in our formative years. Stylistically some of the dialogue between the boys is in the Scot’s dialect.  Those unfamiliar with the language might struggle to begin with but they will soon become too absorbed in the story to notice.

Bissett has captured superbly what it’s like to be a teenager. For those of us (thankfully?) past those years it’s a wonderful reminder of what it felt like to be free, up for it and yet petrified of the unknown. For the teenagers of today it will be reassuring to read that they maybe aren’t that different after all.

Marks out of 10: 8

We are reintroduced to Alvin in Bissett’s latest novel ‘Pack Men’.  The book opens with Alvin on board a Rangers supporters bus en route to Manchester for the UEFA Cup final. What follows is a story of a man unsure of who he is, wrestling with issues of class, sexuality and sectarianism.  The football, or rather the build up to the game, merely acts as the backdrop to Alvin’s unfolding story.

Alvin has now graduated from university and is living in Edinburgh and the UEFA cup final is a convenient excuse for him to get together with old pals, Frankie and Dolby. Brian has emigrated and is cleverly replaced by Dolby’s young son, Jack, ensuring the pack of 4 remains.  Other members of the supporters bus also feature heavily in the story including the man mountain of testosterone Cage and the engaging Chrissie.

As we progress through the book it’s clear each character has their own story to tell yet Bissett expertly entwines the characters stories around each other.  This allows the book to unfold naturally, with each character given their place in the spotlight at the appropriate time.

From the 1st page of the book the issue of Sectarianism, quite literally, shouts out at us.  Throughout the book the issue is debated, discussed and in some cases disregarded by each of the characters. Bissett’s fresh approach to discussing this ever thorny subject, prevalent across Glasgow and other areas of Central Scotland, is to be commended. He opens up the debate in a much more honest, open way than others before him have.  He is also quick to challenge our preconceptions of some of the supporters we encounter, dispelling the myth that all football supporters are knuckle dragging neanderthals.

It is however Alvin, struggling to come to terms with his own identity, who is the star of the book. As his story unfolds, with clever flashbacks to his student days interspersing the ever more chaotic scenes from Manchester, it becomes clear he has a secret he wishes to share.

This book is much more than a novel about a fan’s trip to see his team play football. It will make you laugh, make you think and when you reach the last page you will hope it’s not the last time you encounter Alvin and the boys from Falkirk.

Marks out of 10: 9

Here is a video of Alan talking about the writing process (and also giving you a tour of his flat!)