Karl Miller

  • A Disaffection by James Kelman
    Secker, 344 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 436 23284 7
  • The Book of Sandy Stewart edited by Roger Leitch
    Scottish Academic Press, 168 pp, £15.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0560 8

Studying the West Coast of Scotland from the yacht Britannia, the Queen is said to have remarked, not long ago, that the people there didn’t seem to have much of a life. James Kelman’s stories make clear what life is like in Glasgow,[*] and what James Kelman’s life is like. They are not going to change the royal mind. This is the queen who was greeted, on a visit to a Scottish university, by the sight of a student emptying down his throat, at top speed, the contents of a bottle of alcohol.

One of Kelman’s stories, ‘Greyhound for Breakfast’, the last in the collection of that name which appeared in 1987, is, to my mind, a masterpiece. It’s about a fellow called Ronnie who dumps down the notes for a greyhound, and, to the derision of his friends in the pub, gives his heart to it. He takes it for walks – a ritual activity, time out of mind, of the country’s more optimistic male poor, the dog more expensively jacketed than the chap. ‘It stopped for a piss. Ronnie could have done with one himself but he would have got arrested.’ The discovery is made that its withers will never win the prizes Ronnie is hoping for, and the story ends with a long defeated, dark-thoughted walk, from which he is reluctant to return to his wife and children. The story is wonderfully funny and depressing; the stroller’s speech and soliloquy are perfectly gauged. Ronnie, I think, could be held to be a precursor of P for Patrick Doyle in the new novel, A Disaffection. Both works end on a possible return, on what might look like a bleak diminuendo but is really an anxiety state.

There are important differences, though. Kelman stands much closer to the new hero, and much more of the story happens in that hero’s head. The new book is funny and depressing at considerable length, and there are moments when a wee terror comes of its expanded universe. A Disaffection is a problematical book – partly because of this closeness, the avoidance of developed perspectives on Doyle from those who surround him, those with whom he has his tender and abrasive dealings, with whom he airs his invectives and bitter ironies, with whom he conducts his antagonisms and ingratiations. But for all that, I feel that the book is pretty terrific, both truly challenging and nearly always very diverting.

Doyle – ‘Patrick’ to his author – is of the bittersweet, fantastic-depressive Scots-Irish clan. He is a schoolteacher, 29 years old – the age of Christ at Calvary, whose name is often in his mouth, averse though he is to ‘deities’, and of Hamlet, whose words enter the novel. Doyle’s greyhound is a pair of electricians’ cardboard pipes, which he lights upon, paints and plays, producing a doleful sound that soothes him – it is like mumbling your mantra or telling your beads. He badly needs soothing. He has passed into crisis. He is lonely. His aged parents bore him (‘Are all parents boring?’). His brother Gavin frets him, and he has a longing for Gavin’s wife, together with a more urgent one for a teacher at the school, Alison Houston, who could be felt to lead him on a bit but doesn’t want to have a ‘relationship’ with him. With Doyle it’s ‘fucking’ this and ‘fucking’ that and the system this and the system that. He is against ‘Greatbritain’, with its aristocratic capitalists, its MI5 and its MI6. Society is a stench. Shite is everywhere. Crassness is everywhere. He is a schlemiel of the subject.

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[*] An earlier Kelman novel, The Busconductor Hines, has been issued in paperback (Dent, 237 pp., £3.95, 1985, 0 460 02292 X).