A book with a central Flaws

A book with a central Flaws

Guttered is a decadent and bawdy drinking romp. Perfect terrain for Jefferson Chase, then

Whisky & Culture | 04 Jun 2004 | Issue 40 | By Jefferson Chase

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The problem with a title that stops bookshop browsers in their tracks is that the entire work has to match the expectations raised by the cover. Tom Morton almost pulls off this feat in his 1999 novel Guttered.Morton – a journalist who makes his home in the Shetland Islands and hosts a weekly music programme on BBC Radio Scotland – has a great feel for Scottish diction, especially at its most vulgar. Pair that with a knowledge of the terrain born in part from a motorcycle tour through
some 100 distilleries, which Morton made in the early ‘90s, and you’ve got the ingredients for a bawdy, cynical and consistently over-the-top tale of decadence in the northerly reaches of the British Isles.Guttered was marketed as a crime novel, but the label is misleading. It’s really an extended meditation on the existential issues of drinking combined with an almost Don DeLillo/ Thomas Pynchon-esque conspiracy theory of a plot.The novel opens with the protagonist Alexander ‘Zander’ Flaws, described as ‘the world’s worst private detective,’ visiting his GP.I smirked, pulled out a Grants of Dalvey sporran flask from my jacket pocket and unscrewed the top. ‘Uisge beatha, Hernia. The water of life. Here’s health! Slainte!’ I just about managed to find my mouth with the cool stainless steel spout, and felt the prickly liquid heat of 16-year-old Lagavulin, neat, catch at my throat and begin its warming, healing descent into the gut, nipping at the ulcerating ache in my gullet, then dulling it. An overwhelming aroma of peat smoke, seaweed and ancient sherry wood engulfed me, or maybe it was just a memory of an ancient description in some crap whisky guide. Then, without warning or hope of control, I threw up, horribly, peatily, seaweedily.Apologies to Messers Jackson and Broom for quoting this bit, but it’s just too good to omit – being, as it is, the world’s first tasting notes for vomit.Zander Flaws’ drinking days are over. As his doctor Hernia tells him, it’s either quit the sauce or die. The question is: can he face life without ever again tasting a 1973 Ardbeg? The answer, it seems, is maybe.Flaws’ dormant career as a private dick is unexpectedly revived when he’s hired by an American couple to find their missing son, and a psychotic priest from his past life as a journalist appears as well to take his mind off his alcoholic cravings.Along the way he’s even hired to do a radio appearance, despite having been banned from the BBC for vulgarity. The interview doesn’t come off as planned.I left amid the clucking wash of thrilled media outrage, went through reception where every telephone in the world, or at least this corner of Inverness, Media Acres, appeared to be ringing, and out into the sweet air of approximate reality. I was flying. And for the first time since waking up in the hospital, I didn’t feel like a drink. I’d discovered a new therapy: hitting radio broadcasters. Being at the centre of a mystery. Fear and violence: the solution to everything.I’ve never heard Morton’s radio show, but if it’s as funny and nasty as this, I almost regret not living closer to the Shetlands.True to the surname of its protagonist, though, Guttered is not without its faults. Morton often uses three adjectives where one would do, and the ingenuity of the slow-starting plot doesn’t equal the malevolent energy of Zander Flaws’ running commentary. Some of Morton’s best writing comes when he’s not trying to be clever.I searched myself for some sorrow, some emotion. Some regret. Hernia had led me out of one morass, when he was, for his own reasons…leading others into one which held terrible unknown dangers. But people choose. That’s the thing about addictions. At some point you decide to take that step toward dependence, be it booze, fags, crack cocaine or the alleged music of Michael Bolton.There’s a great sentence here, and it’s not just the remark about the singer. ‘People choose’ – two words that are to addiction what ‘the rest is silence’ is to death.Guttered kept me laughing for its first 180 pages and gave me pause for thought in its final 20. That’s more than enough to give it a passing grade and a warm recommendation. If I ever get around to sampling a 1973 Ardbeg, I’m sure I’ll think of Tom Morton and the surprisingly solemn aftertaste this otherwise swaggering book left behind.Guttered is available from the Mainstream Publishing Company, as is Morton’s non-fictional Spirit of Adventure – A Journey Beyond the Whisky Trails.
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