In his take on the Caledonian antisyzygy — that preference of Scots writers for the sweet/sour conjunction of incompatible ingredients — Hugh MacDiarmid declared himself ‘For harsh, positive masculinity, /The creative treatment of actuality, — /And to blazes with all the sweetie-wives /And colourful confectionery.’ Until his latest novel, you could have said that this was James Kelman’s mantra too.
In the quarter of a century since his first book, Not Not While the Giro, he has created a fiction of harsh actuality around the experiences of working-class Glasgow men. Unlike MacDiarmid’s positive masculinity, however, Kelman’s has always been negative, a self-absorbed, combative, beaten consciousness that reacts like an exposed nerve to every spilled drink, missed kiss and undeserved insult. An easy read he is not. Life’s little consolations, hope, laughter, and the crackle of sweetie-papers have been sent to blazes, and a string of effing oaths has sped them to the flames. But for all the bleakness of the surroundings and the foul language that studs his protagonists’ acute awareness of what is happening to them, Kelman has always observed minutely and written beautifully, in a spare, rhythmic, exactly rendered prose.
In Kieron Smith, Boy, he has brought this talent to describe the life of a Glasgow child from the age of roughly five to twelve, growing up in the late 1950s. The outcome is utterly unexpected, an enchanted masterpiece of boyhood recalled, whose celebratory, optimistic tone is unlike anything Kelman has expressed before.
Glasgow is a city still dominated by ship-building:
When a big ship was passing we walked and ran along with it as far as we could.