John Burnside’s soaring reputation as a poet and memoirist often overshadows his parallel career as a writer of dark and unsettling novels. Glister, his seventh, has as its backdrop the sort of isolated, left-behind provincial town Burnside has explored before in The Dumb House and The Mercy Boys. The town here has only two districts, the Innertown and the Outertown, one the domain of a corrupt, managerial class and the other the preserve of the poor and discarded. A sprawling chemical plant, once the source of the town’s prosperity, has long shut down, leaving behind a legacy of poisoned woods and mutant animals. Cancer and other industrial diseases are overly prevalent; the town is literally sick with decline. More ominously, local boys keep disappearing from the woods on the Headland where the old plant sits. The Consortium that owns the plant insists that the boys have merely left town to find work. Rumour says that there is something deep in the ruins that takes them.
There are two stories here. One belongs to Morrison, a local policeman and Consortium lackey implicated in the latest disappearance. The other storyline concerns Leonard, a teenager who may or may not be the next victim of the forest. The story favours Leonard. It spends much more time with him than any other character (many of whom are so irremediable or doomed that Burnside is content to give them brazenly-flagged, one-note personalities). Despite a precocious obsession with literary books, difficulties with girls and gangs and a dying father (as in other Burnside novels, many of the characters here have a crushed significant other wasting away at home), Leonard is unable to ignore the disappearances of the other boys. When he eventually befriends a wandering loner, the beguilingly odd Mothman, Leonard is set on a course that will take him to the heart of the disused chemical plant.
Like in his other novels, Burnside here conjoins the early Ian McEwan’s sinister atmosphere with the early Irvine Welsh’s knack of vocalizing the young, disabused working class male. But Glister, despite its violence and body shock, is also a fable-like novel elevated by hypnotic prose and an ending so ambiguous that for once it’s fair to say that it reads you as much as you read it. Glister is a freakish, sometimes eviscerating tale, but ultimately a beautiful and maybe transcendental novel.