Dignity and Poetry in the Lives of the Underclass

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Byline: RICHARD GODWIN

EVEN THE DOGS by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]12.99) RARE among novelists, Jon McGregor is determined to write about people who are not normally written about. His protagonists live downbeat lives in places such as Coventry and Aberdeen, and McGregor sets himself the task of finding the moments of sweetness and transcendence in their stories.

For Even the Dogs, his third novel, McGregor lowers his gaze to a group of heroin addicts leading marginal existences in a nameless town in the Midlands. There is little sweetness here and no transcendence -- certainly, McGregor does not romanticise their habits. Rather, in the banality of their desperation, he finds a nimble and unnerving sort of poetry.

The book begins with a death: "They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away."

The narrative standpoint -- an undefined "we" -- is fluid and ambiguous. The prose, sparse and immediate, is short on context but iced with details. The body, when it is eventually unearthed by the police, is described like this: "The swollen and softening skin, the sunken gaze, the oily pool of fluids spreading across the floor. The twitch and crawl of newly hatched life, feeding."

By the end of the chapter, we have worked out that the deceased is named Robert and that a lot of sketchy characters are hanging around his house. But it is only when a policeman closes the front door that you get a sense of what the author is up to.

Now we perceive Robert and his wife, Yvonne, papering the hallway on the day they move in, then having weary sex in the overflowing bath. We next see the couple bathing their daughter Laura in the same tub, the passage of time beautifully evoked by marks on the same walls: "Crayon scribbles appear, low on the wallpaper by the heaps of shoes and boxes of toys. …