Book review: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith
My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Wine, women and bulldozers are the three ruling muses in the charming and amusing fourth stand-alone novel from prolific, bestselling Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith.

Set in Montalcino, an idyllic town in Tuscany, Italy, noted for its fine red wine, My Italian Bulldozer is a quirky novel revolving around romantic complications, noble deeds, and the spirit of adventure.

The central character, Paul Stuart, a handsome but not vain famous cookery writer from Edinburgh, who has published ten successful books on European cuisine, is down in the dumps. His four-year relationship with girlfriend Becky has collapsed like a soufflé. She has left him for her personal trainer, a disappointingly average man with ‘pugilistic features.’ Paul’s modest ego is badly bruised and his normally highly engaging writing has become flat and insipid.

In an effort to raise his spirits and inspire him to finish his current book, Paul Stuart’s Tuscan Table, his ‘helpful, considerate, loyal’ editor Gloria persuades him to go to Italy for a couple of months and soak up the invigorating Tuscan sun, mingle with the locals, and get acquainted with the exquisite wine, cuisine and landscape.

Paul is no stranger to Italy. Having once been a student in Florence, he is fluent in Italian and familiar with the sometimes ‘strange goings-on’ that can occur at any moment. Nevertheless, even he is left speechless when a clerk at the airport rental car desk accuses him of stealing a Mercedes-Benz.

Swiftly arrested by a policeman and taken to jail, he finds himself sharing a cell with a notorious outlaw who is under investigation for multiple crimes. This very hairy, ‘violent’ criminal with ‘wolf eyes’ and long, uncut nails that look ‘remarkably like claws’ is suspected of practically every crime going and, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes on to make headline news in the national newspapers.

Fortunately for Paul, he discovers there’s no shortage of kind-hearted strangers willing to offer a helping hand. The charismatic Italian ‘Caviliere’ he befriends on his flight to Pisa proves the most helpful of all. After bailing Paul out of jail, he then manages to find him ‘a very reliable’ vehicle for hire – in fact, the only available rental vehicle during the busy holiday weekend.

The one minor drawback is that it happens to be a bulldozer. After being given a quick lesson in using the blade and reassured that this slow, noisy, conspicuous vehicle is perfectly suitable for use on the road, Paul makes the 98-mile journey from Pisa to Montalcino without inconvenience.

McCall Smith is particularly good at coming up with slightly absurd situations and convincing the reader it’s all perfectly rational and plausible. He even puts forward a good case for the practicalities of travel by bulldozer – it’s great for seeing over hedges, and parking is rarely a problem as you can simply use the blade to clear an appropriate parking space for yourself. As the ‘Caviliere’ would have us believe, when driving on roads it’s really ‘just like a big truck.’

Indeed, Paul finds the mode of transport liberating and pleasurable, and rather than withdraw from using it once he reaches his destination, he’s regularly ‘trundling along’ quiet roads in it, rescuing damsels in distress and accomplishing a variety of other gallant acts.

Oddly enough, the biggest obstacles in his life – ones that his treasured bulldozer can’t help him with – are his old acquaintances. The unexpected arrival of his editor, and return of his former lover, unbalance his happy existence and make him wonder who will show up next – his dentist or hairdresser perhaps? The perceptive hotel receptionist sums it up best: ‘You come here for peace and quiet, on your bulldozer, and you find yourself running away from a woman.’

Filled with delightfully farcical situations and intelligent and appealing, good-natured characters, My Italian Bulldozer is as memorable and pleasing as its beautiful Tuscan backdrop. Another praiseworthy concoction from the always dependable Alexander McCall Smith.

(Pantheon Books, hardback, £21.99)