The Mile, by Craig A Smith

Three Scotsmen walk into a bar…

It could be the set up for a joke. To an extent it is–a humorous conceit transposing personal, metaphorical journeys onto a physical, geographical stagger down the length of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, from the historic Castle at the top via its most prominent public houses to outside the Scottish Parliament.

This is a novel, primarily, about three men, friends since university who are now on the edge of their 40s, no longer young. Ian, though happily married, is ground down by daily financial strains and fears that the impending arrival of a third child will be too much of a strain on his family. Euan is consumed by the crumbling reality of a failed marriage, clinging to the last vestiges of his life as a computer programmer. And then there’s Stuart; handsome, tanned yet withdrawn, he’s the travel writer who can’t face flying, back in the old country for this reunion, but considering moving permanently into his self-renovated home in France.

Fine dramatic kindling, you might think; but debut novelist Craig A Smith chooses to spark The Mile into comedic life with 95-year-old Jock, a brightly-trousered army veteran who has unofficially slipped out of his Bruntsfield care home for the day and invites himself onto the three men’s pub crawl. Jock is the heart of the novel even though we generally see him only through the eyes of others: most obviously Ian, Euan and Stuart (between whom the authorial point of view flies with often dizzying and–at times– genuinely confusing speed) and Rosie, who works in the care home where Jock lives and, while searching for him, embarks on a personal path of her own.

For the majority of the novel, we alternate between these two journeys–Rosie for the most part, being an hour or so behind them. Unfortunately, this is a structural device which, like most pub crawls, quickly becomes repetitive, especially as the men’s activities are necessarily retold for Rosie’s (rather than the readers’) benefit. Rosie too, lacks the depth of personality given to the men; even though we often get to sit inside her head, there’s the real sense that Smith literary wheels are spinning with little traction.

A somewhat Panglossian conclusion notwithstanding, there’s much to praise about The Mile; not least the fact that it’s often really funny. Smith’s smooth, easily-read prose successfully invokes the atmosphere of the Scottish capital’s oldest street–from the tourists mingling in its historic pubs to the bizarre street performers you find there during the Festival–and he clearly has a good ear for dialect and voice. Yet this engaging exploration of modern Scottish manhood is unbalanced by one all-too-obvious “issue”–what with the action being set a week before the Referendum on Scottish Independence. With a clear authorial bias towards the Yes campaign, it can’t help but feel at times preachy, with Ian in particular undercut as a living character independent of the author.