Book: Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks

Some laughs, bigger problems

Iain Banks
Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram
Century Books, 2003
ISBN: 1-844-13195-5
UKP 17.99
368 pages

First some background:

The "spirit" and "dram" in the title of Raw Sprit: In Search of the Perfect Dram refer to Scotch whiskey. Or whisky. To an American like me, whiskey is spelled with an e and refers to several roughly similar kinds of booze that include Scotch whiskey, Irish whiskey, bourbon, and some others. To a Scotsman like Iain Banks, whisky doesn't have an e in it and when unmodified it refers only to what I call Scotch. It seems inappropriate to call the stuff Scotch while discussing Mr Banks's book so I'll temporarily adopt his usage here.

More specifically, the kind of whisky that Mr Banks writes about is called "single malt". Single malt is a designation for whiskies that's somewhat akin to French appellation controleé designation for wines. It means that the whisky is entirely the product of a single distillery and that the raw material that the yeast used to produce alcohol is all malted barley rather than anything cheaper. Just as with appellation controleé wines, people who like the stuff generally think that single malt whiskies are better than so-called "blended" whiskies. And so they tend to be more expensive. Indeed, some can be quite excitingly expensive.

In principle, it should be harder to make a good whisky if you can use only the output of a single distillery. So why are single malts rhapsodized over while blended whiskies aren't? The only answer I know of is that if you don't have the chance to improve matters by blending whisky from here and there, you fuss over what you do have more carefully.

I'm a Laphroaig drinker, myself.

Now the book:

I've read all of Iain Banks's science fiction novels (including the somewhat difficult Feersum Endjinn) and liked them very much. I've also read a couple of his non-SF books and liked them also, though somewhat less. But an established author who ventures into a new genre has no guarantee of success.

As the title implies, Mr Banks goes to various distilleries in Scotland and tastes their whiskies. Though it was undoubtedly loads of fun for Mr Banks, that's not a remarkably imaginative subject for a book. It's the sort of thing I'd expect to find in a dull-ish article in the New York Times Sunday travel section. The detailed differences among various distilleries are likely to be of interest to only a few readers and, indeed, Mr Banks often leaves them out for that reason. As for the differences among whiskies, a trip to a well-stocked liquor store will likely tell the reader more about what they like best. That's not to say that I think that writing about whisky and the places it's produced can't be interesting, but it's not going to be interesting just because of the subject. The success of Raw Spirit is going to turn on how well Mr Banks can make his travels interesting and entertaining. In my experience, making one's diary interesting is one of the most difficult tasks an author can set himself. But Mr Banks can be a very fine writer.

So how well does Mr Banks manage to keep his diary interesting in his 368 pages? Alas, not all that well. For one, the book is really as much Mr Banks's various cars and driving them (and his motorcycle and riding it) as it is about whisky. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the book has many passages like this one (p. 217):

    From Society Road it's conveyor belt to the end of the
    M9 south of Dunblane, then the small but perfectly
    formed B824 to Doune. (This is where the Python boys
    filmed the Rude Frenchman/Trojan Rabbit scenes in
    Holy Grail.) Though Callander to Strathyre where the
    road opens out properly and then the usual A85/A82 to
    Fort Bill.

A passage like that isn't likely to be interesting to anyone who isn't contemplating making the drive themselves.

Mr Banks also goes on about his politics in the book. That sounds like a fine idea; it would be nice to get some insight into his opinions and how he thinks. Unfortunately, almost all we hear about is how he opposes the recent war in Iraq and dislikes George Bush and Tony Blair. Once, early on in the book (p. 9), he works that into the narrative and it comes off just fine. But later on, we get rants that come out of the blue such as (p. 94):

    I find myself looking at Blair and hating his self-righteous,
    Bush-whipped ass the way I only ever hated Thatcher
    before. I look at Dubya and just see a sad fuck with scared
    eyes; a grotesquely under-qualified-for-practically-anything
    daddy's boy who's had to be greased into every squalid
    position he's ever held in his miserable existence who
    might finally be starting to wake up to the idea that if the
    most powerful nation on Earth -- like, ever, dude -- can put
    somebody like him in power, all may not be well with the
    world. Dubya is the worst of all things, at least at this level
    of power an influence; a cast-iron, 100 per cent, complete
    and total loser who's somehow lucked out enough and
    made it to the very top.

and (p. 199):

    The three of us know each other so well there's not much
    chance of any one of us going to surprise the other two by
    saying something like, 'Oh no, I was all for the war.' All there's
    been are a few, brief, bitter exchanges confirming we each
    despise the illegitimate, warmongering scumbag bastard
    who's in ultimate charge of our armed forces, and that we
    don't have a lot of time for Tony Blair either.

Even if you agree with Mr Banks's politics here (I don't), stopping the narrative every so often to rant about politics is not an effective writing technique. Mr Banks does digress from time to time and jumps occasionally from subject to subject, but never as jarringly as when he feels obliged to drop in a few more rude words about George Bush.

He's also not particularly kind to his readers. After making the very reasonable point that what's commonly called drug-related violence is really drug-prohibition-related violence, he says (p. 167):

    In the -- hopefully unlikely -- event you sincerely believe that
    our current drug laws are mostly fairly sensible but just not
applied with sufficient stringency, please feel free, of course,
    to ignore this paragraph, as it has some connection to common
    sense and therefore does not remotely concern you.

In this case, I happen to agree thoroughly with Mr Banks's politics, but I think that (potentially) insulting the reader is also not an effective writing technique.

Mr Banks spends a fair amount of time drinking (carefully separated from his driving) and also spends some time describing his drunken antics. I'm no stranger to drinking or drunken antics, but at least when sober I'm aware that drunken antics aren't all that funny to sober people. Even the rather small degree to which Mr Banks can make drunken antics interesting and funny is testimony to his considerable writing skill. There's also a continuing disappointment here. Mr Banks talks about taking photographs throughout his travels but the book doesn't have any photographs in it. I'm sure that many of them would have been well worth including.

There are some minor problems as well. I don't think it's a joke or a British-ism (or Scottish-ism) that causes Mr Banks to use "bicameral" for "binocular" (p. 291). And he's mistaken when he says that it's the gyroscopic force of the wheels that keeps motorcycles upright as long as they're moving (p. 342).

Despite the flaws, there are places where Mr Banks's fine writing shows through. I got some chuckles and a few genuine laughs in reading the book. Alas, they were pretty widely separated.

Mr Banks uses numerous British-isms and Scottish-isms; anything that's small is "wee" and so on. That didn't bother me a bit, but other Americans who spend less time reading British writing may need to Google for "toff" and the like.

Posted: Sun - January 18, 2004 at 04:43   Main   Category: