Sean Preston takes a look at David McGrath’s novel Rickshaw.
Irish needs to “sort something out,” we’re told by author David McGrath in the opening gambit of his debut novel. Happenstance colludes, and that something becomes a rickshaw, a handy (if not physically challenging) vehicle for both the perverse and relatable kooks McGrath draws in his novel, and for the whirlwind narrative itself.
McGrath has been a short story writer for some time now, including having featured in Open Pen Issue Twelve. What struck me at the time I met him, when he performed a reading of his story, was that he’s one of those individuals that reads, writes, and speaks much in the same pitch. Nothing seems out of place or even cruel in his winking, sardonic demeanour, and so it is with his prose, which manages to scrutinise a Londony underbelly in a manner free of contempt. McGrath enjoys his characters, miscreants though they often are, and affords them flaws, wrongdoing, and shame, free of bitterness or hostility. In this way, a foul-smelling, blunt and homeless junky thief is all these things, and yet, agreeable, smart, and more pertinently: believable. It’s quite a trick to present characters – often fleeting – that are multi-dimensional and allowed to be as likeable as much as they’re flawed. Human life breathes warmly through Rickshaw’s pages, and not only is it quite a trick; it is its best trick. The novel moves at such a pace, with such ferocity and odium for calm, that the book has to live and die by the laconic presentation of characters. Without McGrath’s succinct, weighted descriptions of these players, it’d be tough to care about the various (and there are many) episodes that might otherwise feel as though they’re over before they’ve begun.
At heart, beneath the petty thievery, the reckless attitude, Irish, our hero, is the classic outsider-everyman protagonist. He needs to sort something out, and that’s what he’s doing. The simple truth of his pursuit – this quiet desperation – manifests a white light through the frenetic monstrosity of Rickshaw’s West London, and throughout this tale. In a narrative that leaps from one scene to another without stopping to exhale, this constant, silent promise of repose drives the reader forward.
And what of McGrath’s outside eye and the London he creates?
I kicked into full speed and got going.
The bike thieves sprouted up like mushrooms in shit, scouting the racks for lock-loose wheels and flimsy cable locks, bolt-cutter boners in their tracksuit pants.
The Tellytubbies with the breast cancer buckets counted through the coin to see how much they’d scored then complained about the new Tellytubbies walking around saturating the Tellytubby market.
The long-lost friends arrived and put their arms around the drunk’s shoulders and snatched their wallets with their free hand.
The couples on first dates kissed goodbye, the girl hailed a black cab and zipped off home with a smile on her face then the guy jumped on his phone for the old reliable.
Stink waited at the doors of the walk-ups and asked the punters just where the hell they thought they were going.
‘Upstairs,’ said the punters.
‘You pay first,’ Stink said and the punters handed over sixty pounds. Stink hightailed it once the punters walked up the stairs and one minute later the punters came running back down the stairs shouting, bastard, bastard, bastard.
It’s a grim London, full of grim figures, sure, and our protagonist points out the fallacies of perceived London by comparison to actual (or at least, discovered) London are of course irrevocably separate. But it’s a London that Londoners will enjoy in its familiarity. Above all, they’ll recognise the seemingly unlimited source of humour that it provides. From bemused immigrants to drugged up Swindonians, the tourist-infested cityscape McGrath pedals us around is a thicket of head-shaking laugh out loud moments. It’s probably McGrath’s strongest hand, actually – his undeniable wit; his wry turn of phrase; his churlish choice of words. At times he’s no short of dastardly. By that token, it’s not a book for the highly-strung, morally fixated reader, but I defy those same readers to take in Rickshaw and not laugh out loud pagely.
Rickshaw is funny, above all, but also wicked, exhausting, and by turns kind. McGrath is a writer of substantial potential, demanding of attention. Rickshaw is that call to attention.
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