AIRDRIE, Lanarkshire, Scotland. The powerful, brutal half-back line of existential dread. The horror. The horror. And the horror.

David Keenan steps into this blasted heath of 1983-1985 with his brilliantly conceived tale of an Airdrie band, Memorial Device, best described in an appendix as sounding like “an autistic Joy Division recorded with a broken microphone at the bottom of the well and played back using a coat hanger as a needle.” This, of course, is a good thing.

The fictional authors of this in memoriam to Memorial are fans who track down the major players and their fellow travellers to construct a history of the band. “We went back to the life sentence, that is Airdrie”, is the comment of one contributor so this is no wistful remembrance but rather an examination – often desperately funny – of how a generation sought to rise above or even sink below the reality of living in an industrial town that has no industry.

It is political only in that it is human. This is Keenan’s first novel and it is wonderfully assured in that it never shouts or screams but makes its points gently. It is inhabited by a glorious cast of characters that include a porn star from Gartness, a weed smoker with a nuclear bunker in Plains, an IRA man on the run, and a drummer who adopts the Palestinian cause and sleeps rough in Israel.

“I met Paddy during his satanic period,” notes one interviewee and by then (page 96) one is accustomed to being introduced to the exotic, the demented, the talented, the sexually confused and the chemically confounded. There will be those who state this is all overblown and incredible. They did not live in the Airdrie of the 1980s. Or in any other Scottish town of that period.

Keenan has tapped the motherlode of this experience. It has mandatory touchstones. There is the sex: furtive, fumbling and frenetic. There is a lot of masturbation, or not enough, according to taste. There is the immersion in drugs and alcohol. There are the awful, dead-end jobs and the life of Pot Noodles, drunken parents, damp council housing and bloody, sudden violence.

There are also, gloriously, the stories told by those who were there, those who survived. These are mostly laced with a humour that is essential to protect the teller from the depredations of a Lanarkshire reality. This wit extends to the appendices and the index. Who can fail to love a book that includes acting gobby, 19; Airdrie, full of ghosts, 192; and council house, made up to look like classy hotel room, 51.

But there is a serious purpose to This is Memorial Device that is made all the more affecting by Keenan’s mature and deft approach. The lives that swirl out of control or adopt a sure path or come to an abrupt end all share a need to find some significance, meaning or even basic contentment. This is a hard shift in post-industrial Airdrie.

The adults in the novel are largely damaged or dreadfully frail. They are not condemned. This is just who they are, whether drunks, sexually confused, religiously bigoted or silent observers to the unfolding story.

This is a tale of the young told from the vantage point of later years. This is an attempt to make sense of the largely nonsensical business that is life. “Back then everything seemed impossible,” says one character in what should be the chorus of the Lanarkshire lament. Another, asked if he could sum up the Airdrie music scene in one word, replies: “Pointless.”

Maybe so, maybe so. But the route out of Airdrie carried a soundtrack. Music meant something then. It was the art form that could transport the struggling young to a place where they could make some sort of personal statement, even if that was only: “This is crap.”

It is an experience that most of us have shared. This homage to Caledonia admits there was the seeping ooze of despair, the constant threat of violence, the ubiquity of strong drink and dodgy drugs. There was regular banality, occasional pretentiousness and the odd dab of joy. There was also tragedy, irrefutable and final.

There are pauses and the odd bum note in Memorial Device and it fades out rather than reaching a climax. But it is a fine, substantial and witty novel about life, death and the raw importance of art. Now there’s a half-back line.

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan, Faber, £14.99