Shuggie is a man on a mission. He's trying to get to California to start a new life. He's just been released from Saughton Prison in Edinburgh after serving four years for armed robbery. It could have been longer, but while inside he learned the triggers for the anger that has consumed much of his life, and how to avoid them. While inside, anyway: but that was enough to get him out early for good behaviour.
Thing is, Shuggie needs to make a detour. His share of the takings from the armed robbery of a post office are hidden at his ex-girlfriend's house, which is in the old mining village of California, south of Falkirk. So he needs to get to California to pick up the money and his passport so he can travel to the other California, the one he has been increasingly dreaming about for the past four years.
Public transport isn't Shuggie's style, so he hijacks a pensioner's car, which gets him part of the way there. By the time he finally makes it to the first of his Californias, Shuggie is already a wanted man, and regretting that he told the pensioner his real name rather than any of the string of ready made aliases from his criminal past. But it's too late now, and you've already got a shrewd feeling that his situation is going to get worse as Shuggie spirals towards a climax of anger fuelled violence that is no less shocking for its feeling of utter inevitability. But will he still be able to break clear, overcome his anger, and find a new life in the other California? As a reader, do you actually want him to?
There's something about this extremely well written novella by Ray Banks which is reminiscent of a thoroughly reduced sauce. The quantity might be less, but the intensity of the flavour and the effect on the palate is enhanced. Shuggie's efforts to turn round his life make gripping reading, and when you put the book down for the final time you emerge with a sense of relief that it is only fiction: until a glimpse of the news confirms there are plenty of real Shuggies out there...