Two weeks ago I got me a copy of Allan Guthrie’s SLAMMER, and was shaken by what I found, cover to cover in one go. No, wait. Forget I wrote that. Two weeks ago a second hand copy of Allan Guthrie’s SLAMMER ran me down, and has been toying with me ever since, like a grassland lion toys with a limping zebra. SLAMMER is a miserable thing. I am miserable since I read, and re-read it. It is all a matter of memory-challenged perspective, isn’t it?
Memory, perspective, truth all gone haywire – that is precisely the ballgame main character Nicholas Glass is faced with throughout SLAMMER. In his fifth novel, Guthrie has added a creepy dimension of psychological provocation to his Noir style. SLAMMER stirs scary questions, comes up with unexpected developments and refuses to supply answers. The author keeps us guessing. Not many novels probe into paranoid matters just like that: impersonal, unmoved, straight down the middle.
SLAMMER needs to be read with as close to an open mind as possible, which is tough on the reader. To counter this terror, I went and got me a copy of Guthrie’s SAVAGE NIGHT, and read both books simultaneously. Sounds bizarre I know, but worked. Somehow I was in dire need of a round-up, had to check out what else this author is capable of. SLAMMER is a psychological Noir so close to the sharp lights of perfection that things catch fire: touch the pitiless plot, burn. It makes you temporarily leave time. In SAVAGE NIGHT, a scary beaut in its own right, violence is just as paramount, yet still this book was my rope back. But that, of course, is another bedtime story.
Right from the start, SLAMMER makes clear that the parameters of its protagonist’s life aren’t designed to inspire envy. Glass (do me a favor and think about this last name!) has not yet had the time to grow up intellectually, and become an adult. He is in his early twenties and depends upon an intuitive grasp of his situation, because he cannot rely on life experience, social skills, or insights into human relationships. At his age, he should probably have stayed out of marriage, but there he is, stuck in Edinburgh with limited job prospects, husband to the instable Lorna, father to baby girl Caitlin. Essentially a good guy but overwhelmed with responsibilities, Glass quickly gets involved in a wronged life. Violence, bruisers, weapons, blackmail, drugs and murder become part of his reality as he makes the mistake to accept a job as a rookie guard in a (fictional) Scottish high security prison.
Guthrie involves us deeply in Nick’s story, and keeps us committed through an abundance of cruel plot twists. A prison is a lot of noise, a lot of nastiness, a lot of threats, and plenty of narcotics. We witness how the inexperienced, wax-like young guard gets bullied by work mates, manipulated by inmates, and misunderstood by his addictive wife. Guthrie has an especially cold, unblinking way to look into common marriage shambles, where things are often just half-talked about, and most decisions are made either angrily, or in a hurry. As stated, SLAMMER does not make it easy. We have to follow Nicholas Glass through a crisis of the heart and a mental catastrophe, but the narrative journey is worth it.
Still a person with some kindness in his soul, Nick keeps sinking down into the cool, more and more confused depths of his life, retells and invents moments, tries to cling to his most recent past, his frail relationships, his place in the world, his very self. There is a narrative point of no return in this book that sends an icy arrow through the reader’s heart – the moment when Glass seems to lose his linear sense of time and being, and gets sucked into something beyond logic and common memory. What, Guthrie seems to ask, version of reality keeps a person sane? Can there ever be something we definitely know? What, then, is truth? These are paralyzing questions, and SLAMMER doesn’t avoid them.
Most lifes are anchored and determined by routine, which is as interesting as pulling rabbits out of an empty hat. SLAMMER is a complex, labyrinthine Noir about the catastrophe of uncontrollable mental change against the backdrop of violence. It wants to do something unexpected and challenging, and succeeds beyond belief. It requires grit, and Guthrie very much has the heart for it. Read this book. Then spread the word.