"Bucket of Tongues"

A former janitor turned literary player pens gritty tales of Scottish street life.

Published July 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

For those of you familiar with Duncan McLean, there's no need to continue reading. I know you've already bought or ordered "Bucket of Tongues." For those who haven't yet heard of him, though, this is the one you want to buy first.

It was his first book published in the U.K., in 1992. It's a collection of short stories -- some very short -- that give a picture of, well, life. It's life in Scotland, the gritty, ground-level side of Scotland, where life is often hard and sharp and we all know how it ends. But it could be anywhere in the world -- anywhere there are people who hope and dream and struggle to survive.

The best story is "Hours of Darkness." And "Lurch." And the soul-freezing "Tongue." And most of the others. You see what I mean. Purists will say that some of the short ones aren't stories, and they may be right. Perhaps moments like "Thistle Story," "The Big Man That Dropped Dead" and "Jesus Fuckeroo" are nothing more than pieces of a whole. So what? Skip over them if you want -- but if you do, make it a point to go back, because they are indeed pieces of the whole.

Whether you take it in pieces or a single gulp, take it all in before you judge, because McLean's landscape is a wide one. Among his other books, he wrote an allegorical tale about a psychotic janitor -- and followed it up with a documentary travelogue on Texas swing music, for Christ's sake!

It seems there's always something more with McLean. His own story is one of those background bits that aren't essential to the books, but you still like knowing. He was a janitor in Edinburgh when he and some friends started typing up their stories in booklets, called themselves the Clocktower Press and sent the stuff out to writers and artists and just about anyone else they could think of. Then one night McLean was giving a reading and a London editor was there. He asked to see everything McLean had written -- and proceeded to publish it as "Bucket of Tongues."

In the meantime, McLean kept turning out the booklets, which included work by James Kelman, Alan Warner, Janice Galloway and some chapters of an odd novel called "Trainspotting" by Irvine Welsh. The rest is, well, you know.

I'd like to call this a rags-to-riches tale, but McLean hasn't hit big yet in the States. Last I heard, he was living up in Orkney -- that's off the northern coast of Scotland -- working at a bookstore or hustling after some other job. I hear he's got a new book coming out in the U.K. this year. I don't know what it's about. But I'll read it. I'll read his books any time.

By Steve McQuiddy

Steve McQuiddy is the editorial director of Intangible Publications, a nonprofit arts and humanities Web site.

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