With the addition of a middle initial to his name, Iain Banks writes immensely entertaining science fiction novels, with fast-moving action and tongue-in-cheek attitude. Without the middle initial, Banks writes novels that have the heft, characters, and prose of serious literature. Stonemouth is one of the latter, and it is a small gem.
Stewart Gilmour returns on a Friday to Stonemouth, his hometown in northeast Scotland, for the funeral of Joe Murston, an elderly man he befriended in his teen years. Stewart had been run out of town five years earlier by the Murston family for reasons that are only hinted at until the story is two-thirds done. His safe readmission to Stonemouth requires him to make nice with Joe's son Donnie, one of Stonemouth's two resident crime lords, who warns Stewart to leave no later than Tuesday and to stay away from Donnie's daughter Ellie. Stewart, of course, harbors the distant hope that it isn't quite over with Ellie and can think of nothing except seeing her again.
Stonemouth is a weekend journey of discovery. Stewart reviews the past and rethinks the present as he visits old friends and lovers. He learns the full truth (or as near to it as he will likely ever come) about the incident that caused his banishment from Stonemouth. The novel's early chapters alternate sly and amusing and tragic observations about the perils of being young with moments of unexpected tenderness. The later chapters give Stewart the chance to come to terms with his mistakes as he decides whether to let go of his past or to make it the foundation of his future.
The principle characters, and Stonemouth itself, are skillfully developed. Stewart and Ellie are particularly nuanced, but even the minor characters have personalities that transcend the stereotypes they could easily have become. Stewart has changed since leaving Stonemouth (not always in ways that suit him); Ellie is changing; the male Murstons, like the town of Stonemouth itself, resist change with the force of ... well, stone. It is the conflict between the inevitability of change and the intractability of family tradition that animates the story.
An atmosphere of danger hangs over the novel as Stewart goes about his business: a chance encounter with Ellie's flirtatious sister; a brutal encounter with Ellie's brothers; a tense encounter with a thug in a pool hall; an obligatory visit with the town's other crime boss, Mike MacAvett, and with Mike's daughter Jel, who represents a different sort of danger. Banks deftly juggles the gentleness of a love story with sudden bouts of violence, letting tension build intermittently until the story reaches a thundering climax.
Banks' strength as a science fiction author is his ability to tell an engrossing story. His strength in Stonemouth is his ability to tell an engrossing story with literary flair. If I could, I would give Stonemouth 4 1/2 stars.