It’s hard to imagine how so much stuff could happen up the Heads of the Valleys in a couple of days, what with the dog-nappings and stick-ups and decapitations. Which all help explain the hyper-oxygenated lick at which Aled Smith’a prose races along in this tale of sink estates, visiting Mormons, discount sex escorts and widespread chicanery.
Think Quentin Tarantino mixed with the tales of Rachel Trezise and you’ll get the general picture. In the mind’s eye pan across an estate which sits ‘beneath the bleakness of Cwmgarw mountain and crumbled daily, unattended, unloved and generally forgotten by the council.’
It’s a place so derelict it doesn’t even have its own wrecked shopping mall, just a chippie, a betting shop, a cheap supermarket and a hard pitched rugby ground.
Being Wales it’s a place of local rivalries of course, expressed most memorably in the fact that, unlike the area in which Texas–2 sits, a neighbouring town has a snow-gritter, and so proud are they of their big, yellow machine that they have put it on display ‘…covered it with purple baubles, fairy lights and tinsel. Children were invited to sit on the huge wheels, and pay for one of their Christmas photos to be taken by one of several dancing elves.’
Leading to Texas–2 is a three-hour read about two crazy, wintry days in the valleys, full of the fug of Marlboro Menthols and the tinny tang of Kestrel Lager and all the crazy vigour of life lived on the margins, right on the edge, with all that life fully exaggerated.
It’s a book in part about people being besotted with America, which was all started by ‘Cowboy Dan Jones, a local businessman who promoted Wild West Day’ and got the locals to dress up accordingly, buying the gear they needed from his shop.
Thus people wear insulated baseball caps, or model themselves on Cagney and Lacey, listen to Michael Jackson tracks, or dream in the bright colours of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. It’s a novelistic take on the characters in Ed Thomas’ 1998 play ‘House of America’ who fell in love with Jack Kerouac and with the ‘mad ones, the ones who are mad to live…, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’
And there are plenty of mad ones in Leading to Texas–2. There’s the epileptic Hank Evans, a would-be screenwriter who has one of the saddest jobs, dressing up as the Pentrecoch Panda, which isn’t easy on a good day but is even worse now that someone’s stolen his trainers.
Then there’s Cheyenne, delighted to get on TV even if it’s as the hospitalised victim of a botched robbery at a petrol station. And there’s Donna and Leanne, intent on making a snuff movie involving a dog as an act of revenge against its violent owner. Worryingly they have the Samurai sword ready.
Throw in the Dogman, with his filthy kennels and local businessman and wannabe film producer Masaki Hamamoto, not to mention nonagenarian Mrs Sparrow – still mobile at her age, as befits the former Cwmgarw Dancer of the Year – and you have just some of the bustling, madcap cast of Leading to Texas–2.
Smith’s debut novel is a high-octane read, taking us into the diseased heartlands of the south Wales valleys, where violence, and sometimes very brutal violence happens suddenly and almost casually.
The body count in the novel is remarkably high, considering the time-frame and there are cadavers galore, all described with a deadpan, steady gallows humour.
It reminds one of the novels of the American Dave Barry, who is possessed of the same sort of scabrous humour and OTT action and, closer to home, the novels of Merthyr-born Des Barry, especially ‘A Bloody Good Friday’.
Leading to Texas–2 is all very filmic, funnily implausible and offers oodles of laddish fun, with the attendant and counterbalancing problems of so-called “chav writing” which has been criticised by commentators such as John Harris and, most tellingly, by Owen Jones in his book on the demonization of the working class.
Yet Smith’s dark take on Valleys’ life seems to stands to one side of such arguments, being a tad too hyperbolic and operatic and adrenaline-charged to take too seriously. Just as Graham Greene divided his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments” this would probably fit into the latter description.
For it is very entertaining, often extreme and announces – over the course of this crazy two-days – a brashly confident new arrival in the world of Welsh fiction. Mad it is, but it works.
Leading to Texas–2 by Aled Smith is published by Parthian and can be bought here.