Give or take a dead Scotsman

Liam McIlvanney

  • You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free by James Kelman
    Hamish Hamilton, 437 pp, £12.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 241 14233 4

‘Ye just battered on, that was what ye did man ye battered on, what else can ye do?’ Grim tenacity, the will to struggle on through difficult terrain, has long been a characteristic of James Kelman’s protagonists. More recently, it’s been a virtue demanded of his readers. Kelman’s last novel, Translated Accounts (2001), was a fractured political allegory in blurry translatorese from an uncertain number of nameless narrators. And the Judges Said (2002), his recent collection of essays and talks, was a chalky wodge of polemic, a Long March of humourless prose. It was time Kelman produced a book with some of the gabby wit and digressive brilliance of The Busconductor Hines (1984) and How Late it Was, How Late (1994), and the good news is that he’s managed this. ‘I just cannay tell the damn story,’ is his narrator’s promising early announcement: ‘I have to embellish.’

You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free is the vernacular confession of Jeremiah Brown, a 34-year-old Glaswegian exile. After 12 years in America, Jerry is coming home. His mother, whom he hasn’t seen for eight years, is ill, and in any case he could use a change of scenery, if only to break a streak of lousy luck. He has been struggling to hold down a succession of shitty jobs – bartender, truck driver, security guard. He has taken some serious punishment as a gambler. And his relationship with Yasmin, a black jazz singer, has broken up, cutting him off from his four-year-old daughter. If the characters in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting are ‘failures in a country ay failures’, Jerry Brown falls short in the heartland of success: ‘failed husband and failed parent, failed father, general no fucking hoper’. The novel takes place on the eve of his departure, as Jerry ventures from his motel room to down a few beers and reflect on the life he is leaving behind.

Though Kelman is always identified with his home city (‘James Kelman is a citizen of Glasgow’ runs an early biographical note), geography has rarely been central to his work. The grubby, post-industrial milieu of his books is generic rather than specifically Scottish, and he shows little interest in identity politics. By contrast, You Have to Be Careful is preoccupied with place and nationhood. America is not just Kelman’s setting but – as is the way with American novels – his subject. Music, food, sport, religion, politics: ‘Uhmerka’, in all its arrogant vigour, is at the heart of this novel. Unrivalled global eminence, and a readiness to export its values by force, have made America a kind of universal – ‘everybody’s goddam country’, as Jerry testily puts it. Kelman’s aim here is to anatomise this global nation, and especially to query America’s sense of itself as a ‘home from home for the dispossessed, the enslaved, the poor unfortunates’.

These unfortunates include not just Jerry but various friends – Haydar, Ranjit, John Wong – who share his dismay at ‘this fucking place’. Like Jerry, Ranjit – whose family fled the subcontinent to escape British imperialism – has had enough of starvation wages and petty discrimination: he’s saving up to return to India. In approaching America from the perspective of what Jerry calls the ‘alienigenae’, Kelman is attempting to write a novel that resists the enormous cultural pressure of America’s defining narrative. The immigrant story is the story of success, of adversity overcome, of footholds becoming strongholds. This story can’t be told in any other way, except that Kelman does just that. His is the tale of a ‘failed fucking immigrant’, one who is on the verge of cutting his losses and going home. There is a whiff of blasphemy here and Kelman seems to relish it. While he is careful to celebrate a subterranean American radicalism (there are namechecks for Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglass and the Wobblies), Kelman treats America’s official icons with brisk irreverence, as when Jerry compares the Boston Tea Party to a Laurel and Hardy skit. This is the America, not of George W. Bush’s ‘Haves and Have Mores’, but of those who have little more than the clothes they stand up in: ‘Other bodies had clothes and possessions. All I had was – what the hell did I have?’

One thing Jerry doesn’t have is full citizenship in his adopted country. You Have to Be Careful is set in the near future, where a security-conscious administration keeps tabs on resident aliens through a system ” of ideologically specific identity cards. Jerry carries a ‘Class III Red Card’, which pegs him as an atheist and socialist. Like Karl Rossmann in Kafka’s Amerika, Jerry is obliged to keep producing his ID, and lives in constant fear of deportation. But Jerry also knows the security industry from the other side. The novel’s long central section is his account of his time as a security guard at an airport where illegal immigrants are detained in a Patriot Holding Center. The uniformed Jerry patrols the compound with dogs, wields his ‘shillelagh baseball bat’, and reports to fanatical neo-con superiors who quiz him on his religious observance.

This is both the most explicitly political and the least convincing section of the novel. Kelman wants to portray Jerry as an ambiguous figure, the state functionary who is at the same time an oppressed alien. In presenting him as a victimised outsider, however, Kelman never adequately resolves the problem of race. Jerry is white, and the suggestion that his accent alone would expose him to continuous low-level harassment is ridiculous, if not offensive. Kelman appears to recognise this, and endeavours rather crudely to align Jerry with a string of black friends and colleagues: ‘My people were slaves as well,’ Jerry remarks to his sceptical black girlfriend, before making an uncomfortable allusion to Ralph Ellison: ‘I enjoyed being an alien. Fuck them. The invisible man. Fine.’

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