by Mark McNay
Published by MacAdam/Cage
275 pages, 2007
Fresh, not Foul
Reviewed by David Abrams
Fresh, Mark McNay's debut novel, is set in Glasgow's industrial district and comes to us packed with smells.
Open to any page and you'll be overwhelmed by the stale stink of the cigarettes which are consumed by nearly all characters at the rate of about one every five paragraphs. Fresh should come with a warning from the Surgeon General.
Then there's the musky lust of men and women engaged in down-n-dirty lovemaking, grabbing their passion whenever and wherever they can.
Also sticking to the little hairs in your nostrils is the rotten-meat stench of a million dead chickens at the processing plant where the main character, Sean O'Grady, works double shifts in the Fresh section, pulling dead chickens off the conveyor belt and hanging them on the hooks which criss-cross a room the size of an aircraft hangar.
But mostly there's the smell of sweaty fear and desperation which clings to every page of the novel. Fresh takes place entirely on one Friday in Sean's life, with intermittent flashbacks telling us how Sean ended up in his current predicament. What begins as just another soul-grinding day at the chicken factory quickly takes a turn for the nervous when Sean hears his violent older brother Archie has just got out of prison. Sean knows he'll be one of the first people Archie looks up when he gets to town because he's holding a thousand pounds in safekeeping for Archie.
Except there's just one problem. Sean has spent most of the money. He gambled it away and used it for family vacations, thinking he'd have plenty of time to earn it back before Archie got out of prison. When Sean learns that Archie has been unexpectedly released early, his stomach falls through the floor and the rest of the book details his clammy-palmed efforts to scrape together enough cash to appease his older brother, a career criminal and drug addict who has a temper the length of a gnat's leg.
The deeper Sean gets stuck in the mire of his own bad choices and bad luck, the more you root for him to triumph (or at least survive this bloody Friday). McNay never lets the pace sag as Sean careens through his day. Fresh gathers momentum as complication builds upon complication, like a bowling ball bouncing down a stairwell, all the way to its inevitable conclusion.
We all know how noir-hued plots like this turn out. It's not a pretty sight. But McNay manages to pull off several surprises along the way to the point where brother collides with brother. More than just a white-knuckled ride, however, Fresh is a detailed portrait of Glasgow's modern urban jungle; the book will cling to you like cold, clammy fog. The thugs, the unrelenting Scottish slang, the pitiless violence, and the ugly side of chicken processing make this hard to swallow at times, but I can't think of a more rewarding book I've read this year. Fresh goes down bitter but has a pleasant aftertaste.
And yet, it's not all dark skies and nicotine. Every so often, in the midst of crude brutality, McNay slips in a moment of unexpected tenderness -- especially in the scenes between Sean and his uncle, a fellow worker at the chicken factory. This book has as much heart as it does knuckle punches to the gut. | June 2007
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.