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.’

Perhaps more damagingly, Kelman’s satire on the US security industry is curiously tame. Not only has DeLillo done this kind of thing with greater gusto and vision, but Kelman has been spectacularly trumped by events. Nothing in Kelman’s ‘Halls of Retribution’ can vie for dramatic horror with the images from Abu Ghraib, and so the old Philip Roth line – that American reality will outstrip anything the novelist may imagine – is borne out once more. As a result, this whole section seems not just pallid and unadventurous but insufficiently novelistic. It brings a kind of ‘news’ that is better told by others: if you want to know about American penal culture and the secret state’s holding centres, you don’t read James Kelman – you read Seymour Hersh.

That its satire is paler than the reality it confronts is one reason You Have to Be Careful is an awkward book to place. Its calibration, its basic orientation towards its material, is not always clear. Time and again you taste its sentences for an irony that is present not in draughts but tinctures, that seems to bleed in and out of the prose. The most pressing difficulty concerns the character of Jeremiah Brown. Kelman is not a fan of dramatic irony and generally avoids talking to his readers over his characters’ heads. Yet it’s hard to imagine that Jerry is not being mocked in the novel, and that his frequently hysterical outbursts are not intended to expose him. At the same time, Jerry’s rasping indictments of ‘pentagon lickspittles’ or ‘capitalist fuckers and their money-grabbing politico sidekicks’ are in line with what we know of Kelman’s own politics. And Jerry’s paranoia – he believes that security personnel are monitoring his actions – may, for all we know, be warranted.

One clue to Kelman’s intentions lies in his protagonist’s ancestry: one of Jerry’s forebears worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Another clue is that he is currently writing a novel about a ‘scabrous private eye’. Kelman’s own novel, you come to realise, is a travesty of detective fiction. Its narrator, a moody loner and battle-scarred gambler, sits in a music bar shifting the booze and sifting the past, ascribing motives, apportioning blame. He’s a mock private dick and his hardbitten idiom (‘Man I was a mean sucker’) is just one of the noir conventions Kelman revels in sending up. The sleuth’s powers of deductive reasoning are mercilessly mocked: ‘I saw his eyes in the rearview mirror, studying me. There was a chance he was a writer’; ‘I noticed the guy reading the newspaper, he looked like Franco’s politics would have been okay by him.’ Kelman’s tactic is to apply the procedures of detective fiction to refractory material. Where Holmes or Maigret are faced with specific instrumental problems (who poisoned the old vicar? what was the time of death?), Jerry’s conundrums (‘What distinguishes one life from another?’; ‘What do I mean "hame"’?; ‘Where do thoughts originate?’) are comically imponderable. Where the conventional thriller moves smartly towards its dénouement, Kelman’s narrative is wantonly diffuse, a vagrancy of false leads and loose ends.

As parody, this is nicely done. The depiction of Jeremiah as an inverted Sherlock Holmes, a purveyor of sweaty conjecture and uninformed rants – the Whingeing Detective – is very funny. What the novel reveals is the humorous edge to Kelman’s work that is often obscured by the grimness of the material. And detective fiction isn’t the only genre Kelman sends up. ‘Gie me blues, blues electric’: Jerry is a blues aficionado (though he thinks Howlin’ Wolf is called ‘Howling Wolf’), and while the live band is preparing to play he makes up his own lyrics. In one sense, the novel is Jerry Brown’s Talking Blues, a long moan that covers all the bases. How his woman left him. How they treated each other mean. How he lost ten thousand dollars to a pool shark. The soundtrack might be Muddy Waters singing ‘You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had’ or Robert Johnson’s ‘Drunken Hearted Man’. Repetition, sexual boasting, showy licks and riffs: the novel has it all. There is even a touch of satanic folklore, in the shape of a ghostly hobo rumoured to be the devil himself.

While not exactly frivolous, then, You Have to Be Careful is looser and lighter than Kelman’s recent fiction, a garrulous ramble after the costive rigours of Translated Accounts. And perhaps the significance of the book lies less in its anatomising of contemporary America than in its sheer performative vigour – above all in its humour. In a recent interview Kelman compared first-person narration to stand-up comedy, and the whole novel might be seen as an extension of the ‘man walks into a bar’ gag. At its sharpest the novel has the virtues of good stand-up. There is a crisp spiel on the quandary of the solitary drinker preparing to visit the toilet in a crowded bar. Does he leave his jacket on the chair and risk someone swiping it? Does he take it with him and risk losing his seat? Like successful stand-up, this finds comedy in a situation too inconsequential to have attracted much attention. It must be acknowledged, though, that the targets of Kelman’s satire are often predictable: do we need someone to explain the ethnic profiling in Hollywood blockbusters? The boom-tish one-liners (‘greyhounds – the original four-legged friends, especially if ye are a fucking bookie’) are consistently weak. And for every slick vignette there’s some laboured shtick on the quality of American toilet paper or the gullibility of women: ‘Women have a habit of liking unlikely guys, unlikeable guys, guys that other guys know are to be avoided at all costs, guys that are total fucking arseholes. Yet women persist with them. They fucking persist with them man they fucking persist with them. What is it all about!’ With its uselessly broad focus, its repetition, its manufactured indignation, its feigned incomprehension, this is also like stand-up comedy, but not the sort you’d pay to hear.

At times, Kelman is trying too hard to be funny, and this may explain the unusual garishness, the vulgarity of his style. Whatever else it has lacked, Kelman’s fiction has reliably exhibited superb stylistic control and assurance. It is not just his mastery of Glaswegian demotic, but his ability to blend this with a vein of mock orotundity (‘I am to perambulate to a distant broo’) that gives his prose its edgy mobility. Here is the unemployed narrator of ‘Not not while the giro’, contemplating the prospect of employment:

Where is that godforsaken factory. Let me at it. A trier. I would say so Your Magnateship. And was Never Say Die the type of adage one could apply to the wretch. I believe so Your Industrialness.

Fuck off.

The mock honorifics (‘Your Industrialness’) and ironic imperatives (‘Let me at it’) measure the distance between the character’s predicament and the social mobility assumed by this discourse. (The whole passage is deftly undermined by the absence of appropriate punctuation, the missing question and exclamation marks.) The ensuing negation (‘Fuck off’) is highly characteristic: Kelman’s protagonists often indulge in long, spooling fantasies that are reined in by a two-word retraction (‘Fuck off’, ‘Forget it’, ‘Sentimental shite’) or simply cut off mid-sentence. His characters are caught between aspirations that border on fantasy and a reality that defies articulation. Their choice is between irony and silence, with the narrative modulating between the two.

In the new novel, such subtlety has been lost. The prose style is a costume party, a congestion of idioms. There is Americanism (‘neat’, ‘burg’, ‘feller’), a smattering of bar-room Gaelic (‘craïc’, ‘slainte’, ‘uisghé’), a little stage-Irishry (‘bejasus’), some random Eurobabble (‘vamoose’, ‘wunderbar’, ‘formeedablih’), and a snatch of queerly spelled Lallans (‘huis’, ‘cludgé’, ‘bonné’). Swilling all this together, Kelman’s narrator gets to say things like ‘There was nay automatic haun-drier in el cludgero,’ ‘le billet is booked’ and ‘Eh hombre, gie us el brekko.’ If there is humour in these constructions, it is fairly rudimentary: the humour of basic incongruity. There is, in any case, something deeply bogus about the new pluralism in Kelman’s prose. One can already imagine the Bakhtinian analyses of You Have to Be Careful, which will celebrate its boisterous voices, its ‘dialogic’ use of language. In fact, the foreign tags and phrases do little to disguise the crushingly monologic nature of the work: only one voice is allowed to speak, and it keeps saying the same things. It is as if Kelman has recognised this and seeks to distract us with little bursts of franglais and cod Latin. He orchestrates a superficial drama of languages – Spanish colliding with Glaswegian! – when what the novel needs is the substantial drama of characters interacting. Cyril Connolly nailed the syndrome in 1938: ‘It is the novelist who finds it hard to create character who indulges in fine writing.’

Kelman is also finding it hard to create dialogue. The seismographer of vernacular speech, whose prose registers every nuance of context and class, appears to have lost his touch. Suddenly his ear is tin. This is Suzanne, one of Jerry’s co-workers, describing her recent encounter with a hobo known as ‘the being’:

It was just so dang weird. Now you got the being guy he is marking time right in front of us, continuing to mark time right there in front of us he is like a marine top sergeant marching on the spot but with them little steps he was taking mister like dainty steps, it was not a natural thing but that now we noticed an unusual odour pervading the space, contiguous to its having come to pass that the being guy and cart now they had accomplished a form of transcendent transmigration and damn damn damn so now we hears the rumbling noise to the rear, yet still we could not move like we was rooted mister, rooted to the spot.

The jarring notes within this passage are the word ‘contiguous’ and the phrase ‘transcendent transmigration’. The complaint is not that a low-ranking security operative should have such terms in her vocabulary; there is nothing intrinsically implausible about this. The complaint is not even that a character whose speech is marked by imprecise, catch-all adjectives (‘weird’), faulty grammar (‘them steps’, ‘we was’), repetition (‘damn damn damn’) and lazy fillers (‘mister’, ‘like’) should suddenly command an idiom of such forensic precision. The complaint is simply one of context: that someone relating an anecdote to her colleagues in an airport carpark would be unlikely to deploy the language of philosophy and theology.

The critical commonplace about Kelman is that he permits his characters to speak in their own voice. It might be truer to say that he lets them speak in everyone’s voice. Jerry rarely puts two sentences together without slipping into parody. Here he is, ogling a cocktail waitress:

Why is it we see that wee bit of midriff? Aint it a wondrous thing, aint it just a wondrous thing. All you preacher men now come on out of these yere shadows, that aint no place to be a-lurrrking for god-fearing honest young fellers. Here is this woman and she is like out there, she is out there.

Kelman is a fluent parodist, and much of what seems hackneyed or slack in his prose is intended as pastiche. But parody needs direction; indulged indiscriminately, it froths into inanity. Kelman is like the guy at a party who can’t go two minutes without putting on a funny voice.

It may also be doubted whether first-person narrative (Kelman usually works in the third person, making subtle use of free indirect discourse), is the mode best suited to Kelman’s concerns. ‘My heid was aye full of irrelevancies,’ Jerry says, but it’s precisely these irrelevancies – the half-thoughts, the fleeting mental scenarios, the little probings and flickerings of the mind – that Kelman has always dramatised so perceptively. First-person irrelevance, however, is quite different from free indirect irrelevance. The point about Leopold Bloom’s inconsequential musings and tootling thoughts is that we overhear them. In Ulysses, the suggestion is that Bloom’s thoughts are unmediated; we are accessing them directly, through a window in the back of his head, as it were, and so there is the pleasure of recognition, of agreeing that, yes, this is how the mind works: ‘Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right.’ In You Have to Be Careful, Jerry’s banal thoughts are mediated by himself, and therefore lose their alibi. They now have to stand on their own intrinsic interest, which for the most part is not high:

What if I missed the flight? I would just go back to from where I came and get a job, earn a dollar. Naw, I wouldnay, I would head south-east, plenty booze-trade work in Florida for Celtic blokes of average bearing. Or else New Orleans. An airport comrade of mine had returned to Louisiana. Maybe I would bump into her. She was beautiful. No that that was a reason; she was a woman I liked. Although it wasnay reciprocated. Well she didnay no like me, she was just eh

I don’t fucking know.

There’s page upon page of this wittering, and even Jerry is bored (‘I don’t fucking know’). We’re meant to regard this novel as a yarn – ‘I aye talked a good book’ – but the voice is not always spry enough to compel our attention. This is why Jerry’s verdict on Eastern European cartoons – ‘canny make fucking head nor tail of them but they haud the interest’ – is only half true of his own narration.

In one sense, Kelman’s fiction is all voice, so when the voice falters there is nothing left. There is no architecture to speak of. And Kelman has always distrusted ‘action’, sensational set pieces and moments of obvious drama. Here we have a post 9/11 novel, whose protagonist – a former airport worker – is waiting to board a plane, and yet there are no security alerts, no flight scenes, nothing remotely resembling the ‘silver gleaming death machine’ sequence in DeLillo’s White Noise. At one point, Jerry provides a summary of his evening, which is also a summary of the novel, and which glories in how tough it would be to pitch this book as a movie:

What a typical scenario: lonely man is to go hame, lonely man enters bar, lonely man has a drink; lonely man has another drink; lonely man ponders a third drink; lonely man has that third drink; lonely man mulls over his present in terms of his past, then blows out his fucking brains. Spare seat on the plane to bonné Skallin!

This – give or take a dead Scotsman – is indeed the bones of the story. The meat, as always in Kelman, is the mulling and musing that goes with the drinking. Outwardly, Kelman’s hero may be a truculent Scot glowering at his beer; inwardly he’s convulsing with laughter, anger, fantasy, paranoia.

If Kelman’s novels are short on action, they seldom lack drama. While his protagonists rarely do much, they endure a basic predicament that lends resonance to the trivial incidents. In How Late It Was, How Late, Sammy’s blindness (he loses his sight after a beating from the police) amplifies every task – from boarding a bus to boiling a kettle – into an epic. In The Busconductor Hines, Rab’s failing marriage gives a dramatic pathos to the muted action and an urgency to the frantic soliloquising. Elsewhere, Kelman exploits the drama of poverty, the delayed girocheque that transforms a long weekend into a survival course.

It is a mark of the new novel’s slackness that its most urgent drama concerns Jerry’s attempt to give up cigarettes. Despite the gambling motif, there is nothing at stake in the novel. Indeed, not even the gambling is properly at stake: Jerry always loses – it’s a feature of his character – and so his wagers lack suspense. In interviews, Kelman talks about ‘meeting the drama head-on’ in his work, but he goes out of his way to avoid it here. Jerry’s sick mother, the ostensible reason for his return to Scotland, is mentioned at the start of the novel and then mostly ignored for the rest of the book. Jerry’s daughter, whose absence he bemoans, hardly features at all in his meandering narrative. Given that his closest family ties seem barely to impinge on him, it is difficult to take seriously his self-proclaimed anguish, his dark mutterings about a ‘deathwish’ and the attractions of suicide. What Jerry calls his ‘inner dramatics’ seem more like inner histrionics.

None of this would matter too much were Kelman not being praised as a first-rank novelist, an artist with Nabokovian poise and reach. The jacket of his last book describes Kelman as ‘one of the finest writers of fiction in the world’. A Scottish broadsheet thinks he is ‘the greatest British novelist of our time’. For a while now, such claims have sounded thin, and it’s difficult to square them with the modest accomplishments of You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free. As a British vision of the States, the novel lacks the wit of Martin Amis’s Money, the range of Gordon Williams’s Walk Don’t Walk and the careful intelligence of Jonathan Raban’s Waxwings. It is narratologically static, characterologically flat and stylistically uneven. The Kelman bag of tricks – the mid-word expletives (‘mister macafuckingroni’), the unfinished sentences, the pantomime vacillations (‘Yes I did. No I didnay. Yes I did. No I didnay’) – has grown predictable, and for long stretches the prose is a woozy, thick-tongued racket. Even when he tries for spontaneity, for the ad-libbed tone he used to reach so cleanly, Kelman sounds less urgent than desultory: ‘It was like it wasnay a bar at all it was really something else, a fucking what do you call it, a restaurant’. This is the finest writer in Britain? This is the master of millennial English? Gie us el brekko.