BUCKET OF TONGUES

By Duncan McLean

Norton. 245 pp. Paperback, $13

You finish this most ghoulish and depressing collection of short stories with an exhilarating and paradoxical sense of reverence. It's horrible that the world should be so dark and so cold for so many. And that one human being should be able to transcend that unbearable coldness and darkness simply by the power of vision and language is a miracle, pure and simple.

Duncan McLean writes about urban and rural Scotland populated by a working class that's hopeless and impoverished. And those two words might be repeated again and again on cosmic blackboards, as far as the eye can see, and still not encompass the poverty and utter lack of hope he describes.

Most of the characters in these stories are young. Some are still boys kicking around in gangs; some have paired off into couples who are down to their last pint of stale milk. Some are middle-aged men; some are cripples. More accurately, they're all crippled, one way or another, by the confines of an institutionalized misery, a Zeitgeist so lacking in joy or the chance for joy--or freedom or opportunity--that the major pastime is the examination of misery and the creation of more misery.

Scotland, seen here, is Hell. It's a place where the only employment is on offshore oil rigs, where your life is priced at less than nothing. It's a place where--if you're unemployed--there's nothing to do but drink all day and pick fights, and drink some more and do drugs. It's a place where people assure each other lamely that they're not drunk just before they throw up on their shoes. It's a place where even the food is iffy--not a fruit or vegetable to be seen, just a few Indian takeout joints where merchants serve up greasy plastic parcels to loud and frightening Scottish drunks.

McLean doesn't preach, and he doesn't repeat himself. In the 20th-century literary tradition, he lets accrued details speak for him. These stories are bookended, for instance, by tales of an earnest young couple trying to make it.

In the first, they're robbed, and they make the mistake of calling the police. The cop, when he finds out they're not married and don't have jobs, can't restrain his contempt. Then, when he finds out that the only things that have been taken are a small tank of propane for their heater and a dozen homemade music tapes, he openly scoffs. It's not worth the police's time worrying about this (except that the propane and the tapes are pretty much the couple's sole possessions, other than two slices of bread for breakfast).

In the second story about this couple, the man describes his lofty thoughts when they're having sex. It's transcendent for him, or so he says. But she says that what she sees during sex is the inside of a shoe box--that and that only.

By and large, women are peripheral to these stories. They've already left the middle-aged men. Or they can't get the young men to commit. Or they're scandalized and heartbroken by their feckless, worthless sons. There's just nothing here in this place. No way for men to find purpose or meaning or simple traction in their lives. Whatever it used to mean to be "Scottish" is gone, debased, nothing but a poor memory. Kilts turn up once here, rented out for a wedding instead of tuxedos, but the wedding is a drunken farce, the conventional wisdom offered up that marriage is nothing but a "bed of thistles."

Each one of these stories is inventive, horrifying, original. Some of them come close to being masterpieces. In "Hours of Darkness," a young man walks the cliffs of Scotland in the dead of night--and finds a half-deserted village where the empty cottages have boarded-up windows with the boards painted to look like windows. He's in bad shape, the walker, and looks for food, only to find two pickled eggs far past their prime in an unfriendly bar peopled with a few violent drunks. He comes upon three young folks out on the beach who describe this place to him as "a rickle of stones and a half dozen inbred alkies." Then the walker takes off his boots; his feet are in bloody shreds. He's been using a map of Scotland as insoles, and that map is drenched with blood. The walker needs what any of us needs: food (and he's given away those sorrowful two pickled eggs), drink (and the beach bums pass around some rotgut vodka), affection, shelter. A woman cruelly spurns him; his last, inevitable shelter turns out to be a cave, a black hole well below the tide line.

Just after the stark beauty of this tale comes "Three Nasty Stories" told in different voices--two drunks in search of a party to which they have definitely not been invited, and then a third enraged rant, a trip inside the mind of another drunk raving in the streets, but nobody's listening.

The only treasure these characters possess is language, and McLean squanders words prodigiously in a mixture of standard English and dialect that lends dignity and majesty to these people in their misfortune. "Were you not afeart?" a young gang punk asks his older brother, who has narrowly escaped death on an oil rig. But of course, they're all afeart, living in this "rickle of stones" called Scotland, using words as wealth after the bread has run out.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays