The best kinds of books leave the reader with characters for company, sometimes for a lifetime. Jimmy This, Jimmy That is such a book.
Likeable characters? Probably not many.
Memorable characters, certainly.
And memorable beats likeable every time.
Jimmy Stokes is the titular Begbie-type in Michael Shand’s brilliantly vivid and cleverly subtle account of an Edinburgh gang of teenage boys. The novel occupies territory somewhere between Keith Gray’s Ostrich Boys and Welsh’s Trainspotting – in turn funny, provocative, philosophical and breathtakingly dramatic.
Throughout the book, the first person narrator remains unnamed, always trying to blend into the background, staying clear of trouble. He navigates his way through adult life with the same uncertainty which characterised his teenage years. The years that were dominated by Jimmy Stokes.
‘The interesting thing about the past is that it never really goes away,’ Shand begins. With marriage and parenthood threatening to obscure the adult narrator’s identity, it is natural, perhaps, that memories of his youth are triggered by the insignificant: graffiti on a bus stop, say, or catching sight of a passing group of teenagers. The two narratives interweave with ease, each shedding light on the other, but there can be no question which strand is dominant: our narrator, however much he would wish to deny it, is defined by his past.
Despite its title, Jimmy This, Jimmy That, is very much an ensemble piece: the narrator and his friends Noggin (decent at heart and deceptively clever), Specks (a victim, but of considerable thieving talent) – and Jimmy Stokes, of course. Jimmy’s psychotic aggression is certainly his defining characteristic, but Shand sidesteps the trap of the cardboard cut-out, offering just glimpses of another Jimmy, quickly quashed: ‘You always knew when his dad wasn’t inside; just had to check his mum’s face for bruises.’
The 1990s Edinburgh Shand resurrects is rich: the games the four characters play for example, will jog readers’ memories and the dialogue, though not for the politically correct, feels authentic for the world the four characters occupy. There are entertainingly cringe-worthy accounts of boys passing themselves off as men in a range of familiar situations, and the dichotomy between the narrator’s voice and his character’s dialogue is a welcome reminder of how, even in adult territory, we play a character to our audience of friends and acquaintances – for fear of being judged. At times, Shand is perhaps in danger of overplaying this contrast in the erudite interior monologue: ‘Evolution happens in such infinitesimal steps that we don’t notice any significant difference from day to day. Maturity is usually augmented by experience and we have certainly shared a lot of that over the last year or so.’
The plot is carefully jigsawed together, gradually building up the wider picture, but somehow still catching this reader out in the final pages. However, above all, what lifts Jimmy This, Jimmy That above many other novels of its type is this – a constant challenge to the reader, in beautifully subversive asides. Without ever explicitly stating it, the book throws down the gauntlet: what would you do? What would I do? When it boils down to it, are we any less barbaric than Jimmy Stokes? And is Shand right when he writes: ‘I guess it’s just how things are in the world; some people get the hand on their shoulder, others don’t’?
Somehow both gritty and thoughtful, Jimmy This, Jimmy That is a ride of a read – at times you may wish you hadn’t got on, but if you let go as it hurtles you through its highs and lows, there’s nothing quite like it.