Dead Not Deid

James Meek

  • Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman
    Hamish Hamilton, 422 pp, £18.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 241 14241 7

The opening story in James Kelman’s 1998 collection, The Good Times, is called ‘Joe Laughed’. It’s nine pages long and is told from the point of view of a boy who plays football on a patch of waste ground among derelict industrial buildings by the river in a large, unnamed city which British readers are bound to assume is Glasgow. You don’t find out the boy’s name, or his age, although hints and the boy’s style of reflection encourage you to guess he’s between 14 and 16. At half-time, the boy and two friends start exploring an abandoned factory. After a bit, the boy’s friends hit him and run away laughing. The boy’s pride is hurt badly enough for him to decide he’s never going to play football again, and for a moment he seems about to take a dangerous step out onto the factory roof, just to prove he can. At the end of the story he’s left raging, alone, and perhaps – only perhaps, because for Kelman resolutions can only happen outside novels, if at all – on the cusp of great change, when he might lose football and his very life, he might walk away from what’s left of childhood, or he might go back to the game.

The unnamed hero of ‘Joe Laughed’ seems like the boy the eponymous hero of Kieron Smith, Boy would have gone on to be. At the end of Kelman’s new novel, Kieron is not yet 13. The relationship between the two is explicit, and goes beyond the obvious facts (they are both working-class boys who love football, doubt their friends and defend an honour worn raw by perceived humiliation and injustice). Like Kieron, the hero of ‘Joe Laughed’ finds personal worth in his skill at climbing: both of them worked out when they were small how to shin up the drainpipes to the tops of their council blocks, rescuing locked-out housewives by clambering up and letting them in.

It’s not news that writers may write their meta-novels in a non-linear way. It’s not the continuity of a story that startles you in the move between ‘Joe Laughed’ and Kieron Smith, Boy, published a decade apart, but the continuity of a stylistic arc. The existence of this pre-written coda to the new novel emphasises a particular genius of Kelman: his ability to rigorously constrain language to the exact situation of his character. The precise and subtle evolution of Kieron Smith’s language – he narrates the novel alternately in the first and second person – is in step exactly with his eight years of childhood, from four to 12, in a working-class urban community in the middle of the 20th century. The language of ‘Joe Laughed’ is slightly different, not because it is a different tale, or because the man who wrote it was different, but because the character is different, almost an adult.

Most other writers with a strongly distinctive prose style – Hemingway, Faulkner, Beckett, McCarthy – use it as a fabric on which to weave varied stories and characters. For sure, themes, settings, narrative strands and characters repeat and overlap, but the language, you feel, is there, within the writer, before the book begins. I’d thought, over 24 years of reading Kelman’s novels one by one (this is the seventh), that he fitted this pattern. Apart from the highly experimental Translated Accounts (2001), the oeuvre seemed united by that familiar Kelman voice: Glaswegian, working-class, forever digging into the fine detail of the everyday, delighting in twisting clichés against themselves, clinical, witty, self-deprecating, judging. The voice was there; the characters, I thought, were obliged to dress themselves in it, each one a different hero. Rab Hines, the working man with the young family, in The Busconductor Hines (1984); Tammas, the young gambler of A Chancer (1985); a schoolteacher, Patrick Doyle, in A Disaffection (1989); Sammy, the ex-convict blinded by the police, in the Booker Prize-winning How Late It Was, How Late (1994); Jeremiah, a wayfaring Scot in America, in You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free (2004); and now Kieron Smith, a young boy growing up in the Glasgow of half a century ago.

Looking back at those earlier novels, I see I had it the wrong way round. The differences between the fundamental natures of these six male heroes, each of whom narrates his own account through various combinations of first and second person and free indirect style, are minor. It is their situations – their ages, their education, their luck – and not their characters that make them different from one another; these situations determine that Kelman alters his voice for each book, and determine how he does it.

The voice Kelman crafts for Kieron in the early part of the book, while striving, as ever, for the perfect synthesis of written, spoken and thought word, is breathless, choppy, excited, hopping from topic to topic in the slightly crazed order that young boys put things, his mind running ahead of his ability to describe: ‘He was away without me and they went to a tunnel under the river. There was all things that they did and just everything and it was all dark and creepy and ye just heard owls hooting and there were ghosts.’ There is so much going on, he wants to tell you, he wants you to listen, he reserves the right to interrupt himself with any new wonder, and the bits to enable you to understand what he’s talking about are spread out across paragraphs:

We watched the ship all the way down. It was in silence it sailed and hardly did not move until then ye saw how it was a distance on, then another distance. How did that happen? Then it had reached the faraway bend. That took a while, if ye were still there and watching ye would maybe be last man, yer pals away home or if Mattie was there he was shouting. Come on you hurry up.

And sometimes I hid from him. My da was all over the world on ships. He liked Brazil the best and Rio de Janeiro.

After he came out he would never ever settle. My grannie said it to my maw. Oh he is used to faraway lands, he will never settle.

It does come as a shock to the long-term Kelman reader – it might even come, initially, in the form of a sense of betrayal – to see constellations of asterisks in the middle of swear-words, from the very first page of the book: ‘Daft wee b****r.’ Not just swearwords; bad words, too. It took me a while to work out what k****e and k***h are (‘kludge’, I think, a Scottish word for toilet, although some would call it ‘cludgie’, and ‘keech’, another word for shit). And t***e? The best suggestion I have is ‘tripe’. I imagine it’s given Kelman a certain amount of pleasure to confuse the boggle-eyed worthies who denounced him and his book when he won the Booker 14 years ago, on the grounds that a book with so many ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’ in it, and with so much Glasgow grammar and vocabulary, could not be literature, to create a hero who bowdlerises himself more rigorously than CBBC. The logic of it, of course, is unavoidable. As a small boy who regards his parents with a mixture of trust, love and fear – his mother insists he talk ‘properly’, his father enforces her wish with violence, teachers and other authority figures reinforce the message – Kieron can’t bring himself to say, write or even think the bad words, although he knows them and the other boys use them. The device gives Kelman the opportunity to mark certain stages of Kieron’s growing. There’s a moment early on, where he decides that he isn’t going to swear any more, even among his closest friends, that gets him a frisson of esteem from his peers, and a rare sense of independence; but it’s also a moment of discovering what a lonely place independence is. Then, as the book wears on and Kieron gets older, the asterisks begin to fade out, until, on page 382, tormented by a bully in the secondary school he hates, he unfurls the f-word in unasterisked fullness, yelling it in a class held by Mad Marty, the algebra teacher, who gives him four strokes of the strap. The asterisks don’t come back. It’s not so much a loss of innocence as a loss of faith that innocence might be possible somewhere, sometime, for someone.

The Scottishness in Kieron’s voice is there, but compared to Kelman’s previous books, it’s more in the syntax than in the orthography of particular words. Some of the more English English appearance of the text is due, like the asterisks, to Kieron’s having been conditioned to speak ‘properly’: ‘My maw was smiling but saying yous, she would not like it. You not yous, you not ye. Head, not heid. Dead not deid, instead not insteid. And not isnay and wasnay and doesnay.’ Kelman’s character-narrators have veered between ‘doesnay’, ‘doesni’ and ‘doesnt’ in the past. Kelman has argued for the right of Glasgow English to look like Glasgow English on the page. But there’s another argument which holds that the use of unorthodox phonetic orthography is actually an act of self-marginalisation; that the right claimed by those who don’t speak Received Pronunciation English or its American equivalent could be the right to pronounce or hear a universal standard spelling according to the way they would speak it. So write ‘does not’, read ‘does not’, ‘doesnay’, ‘doesn’t’ as you wish. This is the way Kelman has sometimes gone in the past, and this is the way he goes in Kieron Smith, Boy. On the page, Kieron even forgoes contractions, lending dialogue and narrative an eerie Hemingway-like quality.

Oh you are not supposed to touch it, I said.

How no?

It is bad luck.

What happens?

I did not know what happens. Except Danny should not have touched it. I never touched them. It was not good to do it. I did not think so.

As a character, Kieron is the quintessential Kelman hero: proud, loyal, brooding under a weight of perceived injustice to himself and others, veering between wild hope and sharp disappointment, always tempted to assert his freedom by spur-of-the-moment acts of defiance. Like the other Kelman heroes, he finds release through a waking dream life, flowering on the page at close intervals as his mind wanders. These excursions are sometimes funny, sometimes whimsical, sometimes dark and metaphysical. And it is in these darker musings that the struggle at the core of the Kelman hero, the struggle for identity, emerges in Kieron. As with Hines, Tammas, Patrick, Sammy and Jeremiah, Kieron’s struggle for identity, for understanding from others, for self-possession and self-determination, is fought in two directions. In one, he faces down the accumulated hierarchies bequeathed by epochs of racial, class, religious, gender and generational conflict. In the other, he confronts the solitude and uncertainty of existence itself, an uncertainty which renders these hierarchies trivial.

One of Kieron’s recurring identity doubts concerns religion. He’s a Protestant, but he has an Irish-sounding name. Why was he christened Kieron? Is he, in fact, a Catholic? In a conventional novel the following would constitute a spoiler, but in Kieron Smith it is so slyly slipped in, and so early on – I missed it the first time round – that it’s fair to point it out: he has reason to doubt. When he asks his favourite grandparents, his mother’s parents, about his name, his beloved grandad brushes it aside, and ‘My grannie just looked at me. That was what she done, and she breathed deep so ye knew ye were not to say it, what ye were going to say, it was just something and she did not want to hear it.’ This doubt shades into a more profound, existential doubt. His mother chides him at one point: ‘It sounded funny, I heard it in my head how she said it. Oh Kieron. Maybe I was another boy.’ He sees his face in the mirror when he brushes his teeth: ‘I did not like seeing my face, how yer eyes just looked back at ye. It was funny how they done it. Yer own eyes. Even like somebody else’s, it was like that.’ In two passages 150 pages apart Kieron broods over whether he should be sneaking off to Mass. What matters to him more than going is being able to imagine himself going. He recognises his shortcoming; if he cannot imagine himself somewhere, see himself there in his head, he can never be there. And he finds it hard to see himself at all. ‘What was me? What I was? If I was something,’ he thinks. He strains for the act of imagination required:

So I had to do it. If it was me and I was one. And if it was in the Church maybe I still had to, and just so nobody could see me doing it, if I just came in the door and the top of the passage and just stopped for a wee minute, a wee wee second. I could see me if I did, and just there and doing it quick. It was me doing it. If it was. I could not see if it was me. If it was my face there, I could not see if it was. It was smudged, if it was a face. Whose was it? It could only be me.

Kieron’s boyhood is a sequence of relationships defined by violence, fear and thwarted sexuality. Right on the first page Kieron, who is telling you breathlessly about trying to catch fish with your hands in the big pond in the park, describes big boys pushing wee boys into the water, and them getting soaked. On page two, the consequence of one such soaking, and the first mention of Kieron’s father: ‘My da was home on leave and he gived me a doing.’ Such doings are frequent. Joy and hope keep being resurrected in him only to be cut off by unfair batterings. His grandfather shows him how to box, to fight fair, and to beat mice to death. His uncle Billy advises him to fight dirty, find a brick and batter his opponent with it. His older brother, Matt, roughs him up. Even his mother takes a brush to him at one point. By this time he is hardened enough to feel pity for her: ‘I felt sorry for my maw, she was not a good hitter, even with the brush giving me the doing, her hand got it twisted and she hurted her wrist.’ Still barely old enough to go to school, Kieron learns how to make hatchets out of sticks and tin cans. One of his weapons is used by a boy to hit another boy so hard it sticks in his scalp. At around the same time a couple of strange boys break his nose by dropping a large boulder onto his face as revenge for something he never did. He musters an army of small boys to fight a gang of older bullies and breaks his head open after escaping from a pursuer by smashing him in the eye with a rock. He is drawn into a wary semi-friendship with a sinister, manipulative bully, Podgie, who grabs a younger boy, forces his mouth open and spits in it.

As apprehended by a child, the sectarianism of 1950s Glasgow is terrifying and funny. ‘Some ye saw in the street and did not know they were Papes till then they were talking to the Nuns. Ye watched for that. Usually Papes had black hair and peelywally skin or else ginger hair and freckles.’ Catholic and Protestant children share the same swimming-pool. Kieron is afraid that if one of the crosses the Catholic children wears touches his skin, he’ll be burned. Kieron’s brother explains the Scottish Protestant world-view: all the heroic fighters for Scottish independence – William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie – are Catholic, and thus intolerable. You had to go with the queen and the redcoats. ‘So it was the English, that was who ye were if ye were Scottish,’ Kieron concludes. Fraternisation is possible. Kieron has Catholic friends, such as Michael Lang. ‘Michael Lang was brave because of all what happened to Papes. It was a shame for him. I saw him in my head. He was split in two, the bit I knew and the other bit was a Pape.’ In a long passage from the terraces at Hampden, where he’s sneaked in without a ticket, Kieron is swept up in the wild Protestant fervour of the Rangers crowd, sublimated into sport but in spirit no less menacing than any pre-civil war rally in any divided city in the world, Belfast, Beirut, Burnley, Mosul or Sarajevo:

we would just follow on and never surrender if it was up to our knees and that was their blood we never ever would surrender if we were ever cowards, we would never be, never ever.

It just made ye angry, if they thought that, if we would be cowards oh we would never be cowards, and it was just everybody, oh who wants to fight us because ye shall die, we will kill yez all we will never give in, never, never never, never shall there even be one to give in.

It’s hard on Kieron, and the scars cluster on him, though his resilience is great, and he has an ability to recover tenderness, friendship or happiness from the most meagre sources. The two moments of warmth with his father, when his father carries him home injured from a fight and repairs an old bicycle for him to ride (the bike is immediately stolen) stand out against the beatings, his father’s loneliness and anger and relentless racism. An unsettled, confused boy, Mitch, who starts masturbating at the back of class simply because he feels like it, becomes Kieron’s close friend. Mitch is good at spitting, whistling and fighting. After the death of Kieron’s grandfather Mitch becomes the receptacle for the loyalty Kieron is capable of, but which – girls being remote objects of curiosity and adoration, his new school alien and hostile – he can’t put anywhere else. He reads books; he climbs whatever he can climb: trees, walls, buildings. As the narrative proceeds, his sense of wonder narrows relentlessly, and the constraints of class, work, money and sex close in.

In Kieron Smith, you see as in no previous Kelman novel how much the honesty and rigour of Kelman the writer have priority over the personal beliefs of Kelman the public speaker, interviewee and polemical writer. It is not that the one contradicts the other, but that, by having a child as his hero, the anger of Kelman the social critic, believably passaged into the thoughts and words of the central characters of his earlier novels, no longer has a place. You might happen to know that Kelman blames successive avatars of a repressive British capitalist-imperialism for the ills of working-class Glasgow – the poverty, the bigotry, the violence, the racism, the sexism, the deference. But Kieron doesn’t see it this way, and if you don’t know how Kelman and his previous heroes see the world, you won’t find out from this book. It would be a naive reader who read Kieron’s world-view without irony, but so thorough is Kelman’s determination not to allow a chink of false adultness in Kieron’s character that readers have to bring all the irony they need with them. The book is full of references to ‘posh people’ and ‘snobs’ but Kieron never gets around to spelling out what makes a snob and why it’s bad to be one. It would be implausible if he did. Indeed, he keeps telling us that his mother – the one who insists he goes to the snobby school, the one who insists he talks ‘properly’ – is a snob. I reckon that Kelman the man considers Kieron’s mum to be a victim of conditioning by a repressive social system. But the neophyte Kelman reader might simply think: ah yes, the mother wants the boy to get on, and the boy doesn’t understand. And here’s Kieron talking about his experience of a children’s book from the South (this from a writer who has felt, throughout his career, marginalised and belittled by the English literary establishment):

I read a book and the children went away to school and with their suitcases all packed, saying cheerio to their mothers and fathers at the train station. Boys to one school, girls to one and they just met up for hols. Some were sisters. They were with the boys at the seaside and had all adventures . . . It was just all living together, doing yer lessons and then games and big dinners, ye saw them in the dorms and it was cakes and buns. They were posh and were in England but they were still like pals and ye thought if ye met them, well, they would be okay, and ye could show them places. My maw would have wanted it. It was posh people for her, she liked them. My da did too, a wee bit.

For a writer so closely associated with a specific community, Kelman is wary of the specific. He dislikes getting tied down by proper nouns. Like Kafka, one of the writers he most admires, Kelman tends to the generic where places and things are concerned. Signs of the struggle to hold the specific at bay are sprinkled throughout his work. In The Busconductor Hines the narrator will refer to a part of Glasgow as ‘The district of D’. In A Chancer, instead of saying ‘the pub’, he gives the pub a name, but puts the name in italics: Simpson’s Bar. The logic being, presumably, that to write ‘Simpson’s Bar’ would be to imply that the reader ought to know the place. And to assume that anyone should know anything, indeed to assume anything at all, is a cardinal sin in Kelman’s universe. Societal assumptions, inherited or acquired assumptions, are the root of wickedness. If you give something a proper name – if you refer to a city as Glasgow, if you refer to a river as the Clyde, if you refer to a black boxer as Cassius Clay or to a book as an Enid Blyton book – you are both assuming knowledge and opting in to an acquired, external definition, and that is wrong, because the nature of every thing or person is to be questioned and proven according to what it is, rather than what somebody you have never met tells you it is.

In Kieron Smith there is no Glasgow and no Clyde; there are no footballing or boxing heroes by name, no titled books or TV shows, no named brands, no named musicians. The district where Kieron is born, and the new estate he moves to, aren’t named. There are only names of family, friends and teachers, God, the queen and Rangers. Wages and prices aren’t specified; we just know that Kieron’s family is very poor. Unlike Kelman’s previous novels, where events occur over the space of a few days or weeks, in Kieron Smith the genericisation extends to time. There are no well-known news events, local or national. There are no holidays or festivals, although there is an Orange Order march. The seasons, the numbers of the years, changing fashions, Kieron’s age and birthdays are barely mentioned.

Removing all those capitalised nouns from the narrative of a young boy’s life is an effective blow against a nostalgist reading of Kieron Smith; and nostalgist literature can all too easily turn to sentimentality and marketing. It’s not without its cost. It’s a step away from pure realism, and the lack of conventional time-pulses does make the book more difficult to read: at least until awareness of Kelman’s skill in making Kieron’s changing voice and perception mark time begins to kick in. But the reward is not simply the psychologically subversive one of making the readers question the acceptance of acquired labels. It is to give Kieron Smith a supreme universality, making it both a lasting work and one broad enough to be appreciated by any one of the billions of people who have shared its hero’s experience in the last sixty years. In Mumbai, in Shanghai, in Alexandria, poor boys have grown up in industrial cities by great rivers, in cramped flats, fought in gangs, been beaten by parents and punished by teachers, found other castes or ethnicities to despise, climbed drainpipes and escaped into books, been moved to new estates.

Contrary to everything I’ve come to expect from Kelman, there is a surprise on the final page of Kieron Smith, Boy. Not a twist or a revelation, but a surprise all the same. It is quite in keeping with Kieron’s age and situation that he should think about God a lot, and the way the novel ends doesn’t suggest to me any startling late shift to religiosity in its author, any more than I am tempted to read heavenly symbolism into Kieron’s obsession with climbing. The ending is unexpectedly warm, and – I never thought I would say this about a Kelman book – comforting; but then even a God-slaughterer as prominent as Nietzsche believed that a man’s virtues may survive his death. The book ends with a final ‘if’; a word that is studded throughout the book, often at the beginning of sentences, the great recurring emblem of hope, embodying the resurgence of Kieron’s imagination after each defeat.

If I spend so much time on Kelman’s use of language, it’s partly because Kieron’s story is so bound up with it, and partly because I am not sure that all his potential readers can bring themselves to credit the degree of artistry, the weighing of each word and comma, that he puts into his work. There’s a reluctance to accept Kelman for what he is, a perfectionist and a radical Modernist writer of exceptional brilliance, and this reluctance is not just bourgeois superciliousness. There’s a generous but misdirected romanticism, too, which would like to imagine Kelman warbling his native fucknotes wild, simply sluicing a measure of his authentic working-class soul onto the page without the mediation of rational thought: a one-shot exotic. The real reason Kelman, despite his stature and reputation, remains something of a literary outsider is not, I suspect, so much that great, radical Modernist writers aren’t supposed to come from working-class Glasgow, as that great, radical Modernist writers are supposed to be dead. Dead, and wrapped up in a Penguin Classic: that’s when it’s safe to regret that their work was underappreciated or misunderstood (or how little they were paid) in their lifetimes. You can write what you like about Beckett or Kafka and know they’re not going to come round and tell you you’re talking nonsense, or confound your expectations with a new work. Kelman is still alive, still writing great books, climbing.