The Stillman by Tom McCulloch

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Reviewed by Andrew Blackman

Follow your dreams. It’s a phrase beloved of self-help authors and motivational speakers, but what if you can only follow your dreams by hurting those closest to you? In his debut novel, Scottish author Tom McCulloch explores the messy aftermath by catching up with the emotionally emasculated Jim Drever, whose mother abandoned him decades ago in search of love and adventure.

Jim is now fifty years old, and after twenty years working at a Highland distillery, his closest relationship is with the machines he monitors.

He has a wife, two kids, an ailing father and a Cuban lover, but with none of them does he display the same affection as he shows for the whisky stills. He even sneaks into the Stillhouse at night when he’s not on shift, and sits with his back resting against the warm copper, listening to the spirit boiling inside.

“I’ve always been able to feel it, see it, bubbling in the dark, rising as steam through the long neck, cooling in the condenser, liquid again. Nothing but truth here, the spirit agitated but untroubled, following the way defined since barley was sown.”

For the human beings in his life, on the other hand, there is generally indifference, bemusement or distaste. His wife is introduced with disdain, as he mocks the ridiculous presents she got him for his fiftieth birthday, and then says she’s been “getting into wine. Always been aspirational, not that it’s stopped her battering the cheap voddie.”

His teenage son is such a stranger to him that Jim doesn’t even use his name, merely calling him “the Boy.” His daughter’s impending wedding seems like an irritation, and he spurns his new son-in-law’s attempts to bond. He’s detached from his work colleagues, distant from his father, and when his Cuban lover, Adelina, flies in from the other side of the world, he refuses even to speak to her.

Hardly a sympathetic character, then.

Fortunately he feels real, which is far more important. The pages of The Stillman may be redolent with male self-pity, but it’s a believable self-pity. If you read the book, you will almost certainly want to reach into it a few times, slap Jim across the face and tell him to wake up and do something. But he’s a fascinating character, and much of the interest of the novel comes from discovering how he came to be that way.

Maternal abandonment plays a big part, of course, and it’s his mother’s death that drives the plot, first by sending him to Cuba to tie up her affairs and fall in love with Adelina, and then through her final journal entries, which someone scans and emails to him a decade later.

The relationship with the father is well drawn, too, with Jim feeling a mix of respect and hatred for the man who brought him up, stood by him and sacrificed for him, but also set impossible standards for him to live up to.

“An essentially good man. I’ve never measured up. He never imposed his values but his quiet moral decency and generosity were pressure enough. I’ve always felt like a twelve-year-old in his company.”

Sometimes the detachment goes a little far. It’s not clear, for example, why Jim doesn’t fill in the simple forms that will get his father transferred to another nursing home, and doesn’t tell his wife until the last minute that the father is moving in with them. It’s not clear why he’s so apathetic about the potential closure of the Stillhouse he loves so much. It’s not clear why when Adelina turns up, he shuts her out so brutally.

And then there’s the question of why Adelina falls for him in the first place. Only in novels, it seems, do younger, attractive, intelligent women fall in love with drunk, self-centred middle-aged men. Even Jim doesn’t seem to like himself very much, so it’s hard to see why Adelina would.

But if you can accept that she sees something in Jim that isn’t apparent to the naked eye, then her appearance in Jim’s frozen world does create a satisfying climax. This is a man who lives by avoiding reality, and by the end of the novel, it’s hurtling at him: the lover he thought he’d abandoned comes after him, the mother he tried to forget starts speaking to him through her journal entries, and his job and his marriage are under threat.

It’s clear that he works not only by avoiding, but also by separating. The dalliance with Adelina was only possible because in Cuba he believed himself to be someone else, in a completely separate world. He made up a new identity for himself, and did things the ‘real’ Jim Drever would never do. So when she turns up in his small Highland town, he can’t accept it.

She looked so cold, so cold and out of place. As she can only ever be in this setting, my setting, which will never know a molten sun.

It’s a sad tale. Through his mother’s journal entries, we get a glimpse of a life lived to the full, and Jim’s life is the complete opposite. It’s almost as if his life is payment for the freedom she enjoyed. Where she gambled, he plays it safe; where she was open to new experiences, he is firmly closed; where she travelled the world, he is tied to his own space, the town he knows, talking about the need to belong even though he doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. He convinces himself that some things are not possible, that he can live only one type of life, and yet having made his choice, he doesn’t commit himself to it. He remains detached, looking in on his life from the outside, retreating to his laptop or the warm familiarity of the Stillhouse to escape from a world he doesn’t seem equipped to inhabit. It’s an impressive portrait of a life unlived.

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Andrew Blackman is a writer. His website is here.

Tom McCulloch, The Stillman (Sandstone Press, 2014), 276pp.

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