Warner returns to the Port, the fictionalised version of Oban which was the setting for his earlier novels Morvern Callar and The Sopranos in this wonderful book. He has spooled the clock back four decades to the early 1970s and given us a male narrator: 15 year old Simon Crimmonds. His family relatively affluent; his father is a Yorkshireman running a fleet of 10 red and cream liveried haulage lorries, he has a small brother Jeff and his mother endlessly tends the grounds of their large modernised house in the village of Tulloch just outside the Port. Tulloch Villa is 'a large, two-storey, Victorian dwelling with hardly a whisper of Gothic' on the shores of the sea loch.
Simon finds first love and sex with 'little ray of golden sun' Nikki Caine, escaping together on his 50cc Yamaha motorbike, 'wenching' where they can, be it dark lanes or the back green behind her council house, outside the tiny bedroom she shares with her older sister Karen.
Simon is not sure what he wants from his life, but it isn't the life his father - who left school without qualifications - has planned for him. Idly wandering into the Labour Exchange one day he ends up applying for what he thinks is a job at the hospital where Karen is a nurse, but turns out to be a trainee railwayman working with the new diesel engines in direct competition with his father. Despite his best efforts he gets the job and is pitched into a world of older men, men with bodies shattered by decades of hard manual work, hands immune to pain from endless hours shovelling coal as firemen for the steam trains they served on.
The Deadman's Pedal is in some ways a coming of age novel, we witness Simon grow as learns to handle the engines and haul passengers and goods from the Port blindly over the moors to link with the Glasgow trains, to drink heavy with the railwaymen and fend off rampant socialist Red Hannan's imprecations to join the cause. He meets Alexander, English boarding school educated scion of the great house at Broken Moan high above the port, his restless sister Varie and their ex army officer class father, Commander of the Pass, Andrew Bultitude. Alexander introduces Simon to the addictions of foreign literature and vinyl music, Varie to lust after a girl moving into the world of university beyond the Port and smoking dope.
But this book is much more that a simple bildungsroman. What shines, as ever with Warner, is his precise detail and dialogue. The evocation of provincial Scottish life in the early 1970s is utterly compelling and meticulous, from the characterisation of war-raised conservative parents versus their more sexually liberated but still emotionally conservative children, to the particulars such as ownership of colour tv to mark out the more affluent families. Warner's exquisite passages of Simon and the other railwaymen on the trains could in less able hands have easily been pedantic, but are here infused with the freshness of Simon experiencing it for the first time, a gone world of mechanical manual railways, signalmen and paraffin lanterns. Warner metonymically uses touches such as cigarettes smoked: the old railwaymen smoke roll ups, Simon and his friends Embassys, perhaps symbolic of wartime frugality versus 70s convenience, or a move from the values of hand work and craft to consumerism. Warner's writers craft is there in the difference in the feel of Nikki and Varie's hair, the way that one when riding pillion lays her head on Simon's back turning from the road ahead while the other looks over his shoulder to see it, in bare feet with red nail varnished toe nails, in the colour of a pair of eyes. It is in the fact that the date roundel at Tulloch Villa, built in 1881, has never been engraved.
Warner also uses his usual darkly humourous flair for gifting names and nicknames: John Penalty is paying the price for a life on the railways, hips crumbling; Shoutin' Darroch rarely speaks; and English educated Varie bears the only obviously Scottish name among the younger generation, but her name is an Anglicized phoenetic translation of the Gaelic name Mhairi so English people will not have trouble pronouncing it. Gaelic is a language in which word sound and visual appearance have at best a passing acquaintance and Varie's parents' insidious act of exchanging a language accessible only through local knowledge for transparency and obviousness appears symbolic of her obvious poor little rich girl version of wild child and her lack of mystery and opacity.
And always behind everything is the landscape and its ability to alter people: the desolate lands above the Port that Simon travels through on train and motorbike; the den he and friend Galbraith construct high above the Port; the hydroelectric dam loch Andrew Bultitude commissioned which drowned a village and his mother's home; and the streams that cut through the hills which bring about the dramatic events that end the novel as Simon takes a good train over the moors with and increasingly ailing Penalty.
This is the book Warner has been speaking of for years, and it was worth the wait.