There’s occasional comedy (“Yi dinnae bring bloody weapons tae school! That’s whit yur fists is fir!”), but not much camaraderie between the Young Team, and it’s hard to tell whether the indistinguishability of most of his mates is the author’s design or limitation. Azzy gives up drugs, leaves Scotland for three years, but comes back to find that not much has changed. If the book sounds a bit bleak, why read it? Because it gives us a voice from a place — geographically and socio-economically — we don’t often hear from, and that’s valuable in itself.
While the story of fighting a growing dependence on drink and drugs is compelling, the novel’s great strength is its use of the distinctive North Lanarkshire dialect, with its almost Northern Irish twang. Armstrong makes the language slam-dance and pirouette, using an endless variety of relishable words and phrases. “A grab him by the tracky tap n header fuck oot his beak” describes a Glasgow kiss. A Saturday night holds “residual sufferin ae deathly roughnesses, eckto-weekender re-burns where we hunted fur more Class As”. The non-standard English forges a dazzling poetry of its own.
There have been many other novels that deal with Scottish gangs rather than gangsters, although as the book hurtles towards its conclusion, the erstwhile gangs and the “cardboard” gangsters and the genuine gangsters head towards a collision. Personally, I have always preferred subtler novels on this topic like George Friel’s Mr Alfred, MA or Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon. With its recovery and return plot, it does steer perilously close to being an anthem to “a bam’s a bam for a’ that”.