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Bunker Man
Duncan McLean
W.W. Norton Books, 297 pages

Bunker Man
Duncan McLean
Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Duncan McLean now lives in Orkney. His books include Bucket of Tongues, a collection of stories, and the novels Blackden and Bunker Man. McLean's account of his harrowing trip to the land of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Lone Star Swing, is his most recent.

ISFDB Bibliography
Duncan McLean Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Donner

Off in the woods, a bit away from the school, there is a bunker that overlooks the North Sea. Left over from the war, it stares blankly out at the salty water, an empty, unused shell. Rob Catto, the head janitor at the nearby high school, discovers and explores this bunker through his daily jogs and an occasional sexual escapade with his wife in the woods. He pays little attention to it though, seeing it mainly as a place where students go to skip classes and either smoke pot or have sex.

Janitors are potentially the most interesting and most ignored people roaming the halls of high schools across the world. Ubiquitous and close to invisible, they scour their way through hallways and bathrooms, apparently unconcerned with the goings on around them. But to ignore them is to drop your guard when you are still being watched. To quote from The Breakfast Club, "I am the eyes and ears of this institution, my friend."

When Rob and the other janitors are asked to help protect and police the student body, they initially laugh at the request. But after they are warned about a man seen lurking around the grounds, Rob's interest in this part of his job increases. It appears that someone is living in the bunker, and Rob thinks this man may have bad intentions.

Bunker Man is first a story of obsession -- Rob's obsession, which arises out of his initial concern about the potential depravity of the man living in the bunker. Rob's obsession with the evils of those around him takes him gradually through a series of increasingly violent sexual encounters, first with his wife and then with a pretty young student named Sandra Burnett. As Rob's encounters grow more and more intense, his obsession with the bunker man and the danger Rob thinks he represents to the children also increases.

Within the twisted logic of his personal vendetta, Rob befriends the bunker man while simultaneously planning how he will "catch him in the act" and destroy him. Rob gradually begins to see the bunker man as representing all that is wrong with the school, real or supposed -- sexual activities, insubordination, drug use, violence. Meanwhile, Rob continues his sexual relationship with the immature and love-starved young Sandra Burnett, apparently oblivious to the detrimental effects his actions may have on this young life.

Although this novel was published about a year ago, I first heard of Duncan McLean through an interview with Marty Moss-Coane on the NPR show "Fresh Air." The interview was related to McLean's most recent book, Lone Star Swing, which had just come out. But they talked about Bunker Man and read excerpts from it, and I knew this was a book I had to read.

Bunker Man is a masterful tale of how one man's obsession grows to the point where it overtakes and obliterates his former personality, turning him into what he hates so strongly. The first thing you notice is the language. Duncan McLean's writing is coarse and graphic -- not for the faint of heart -- but it is also powerful and vividly shocking. Far from the standardized British English of the BBC, Duncan McLean also uses a heavy Scottish dialect that takes a bit of getting used to but adds to the eerie feeling. For me, much of the potency of the story came from this unfamiliarity.

McLean seems to have unlimited resources with the language as well. Often his bawdy humour is irresistible. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of the letters Rob writes to his supervisor, Mr. Moran. Although they increasingly reflect Rob's self-absorption, you can't help but laugh at the bizarre content.

Rob's advice to Mr. Moran ranges from installation of a garbage-burning furnace -- which would solve both the litter and heating problems -- to recommending the "jannies" be outfitted with leather holsters -- "an impressive accessory, handy for holding a notebook and pencil, which could be whipped out and used for recording details of pupils' names and crimes."

The next thing you notice about Bunker Man is the sense of uncertainty and frustration filling the lives of the various characters. Rob Catto initially is a pretty likable guy, living a simple but happy life with his young and attractive wife, Karen. He has a good sense of humour and a healthy cynicism about his work and his life. But a combination of boredom and personal insecurity lead quickly to terrible consequences.

Throughout Bunker Man the tension and ambiguity build until the reader is uncertain whether Robbie Catto is going mad, whether he is simply an evil man, or whether there is really a serious threat to the safety and well-being of the student body and town. And when it comes right down to it, McLean seems to say, can we ever really know?

Copyright © 1998 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.

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