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Short and sweet: Xstabeth, by David Keenan, reviewed

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Xstabeth David Keenan

White Rabbit, pp.176, 14.99

Aneliya, the Russian narrator of David Keenan’s enjoyably weird new novel, is worried about her dad. Tomasz’s modest music career is coming to an end; his wife left him years ago, and he lives in the shadow of his louche and much more successful best friend Jaco. ‘The famouser musician’ pulls some strings to get Tomasz one last gig, as a favour to Aneliya, with whom he is having a secret affair. Tomasz has a stinker in front of 20 people. An audio sample from his performance subsequently turns up on an obscure LP released under the mysterious moniker Xstabeth. The track is hailed in underground circles as a work of avant-garde genius. Duly heartened, father and daughter travel to St Andrews to watch some golf.

One minute we’re in a sleazy St Petersburg bar, the next it’s picnics and frisbee at the Scottish seaside. Now pregnant by Jaco, Aneliya hooks up with another older man, a famous golfer. The Russian temperament, she explains, is well suited to golf:

Outdoor sports are not our thing… But if we have to go out we like to walk on grass. Slowly. And take our time. And stare at the horizon with a meaningful look. And put our hand up to our forehead. Then shake our head and walk on.

Tomasz draws doodles of birds, and the characters discuss memory, metaphysics and magic.

The prose has a mesmeric quality, with lots of very short sentences, often three to a line, and rhythmic repetitions. Another writer might have made Tomasz the butt of cruelty, but for Keenan, who was a music critic for many years before becoming a novelist, the also-ran is as romantic a figure as the cult hero.

Xstabeth reprises the manic idealism of This is Memorial Device (2017), Keenan’s exuberant debut novel about the post-punk scene in 1980s Airdrie. Tomasz, a disciple of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake, cuts a brooding but sympathetic figure. His daughter adores him for the very guilelessness that has held him back: ‘Everybody thought he was a joke… Not me… naivety is the deepest form of belief. It’s closer to reality. To wonder.’

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