Katie Grant

Just a wee drap of paranoia

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You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free

James Kelman

Hamish Hamilton, pp. 437, £

When James Kelman’s novel, How Late it Was, How Late, won the Booker Prize in 1994, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, one of the judges, objected that the book was ‘just a drunken Scotsman railing against bureaucracy’. The Rabbi will find no more comfort in Kelman’s latest work in which blind Sammy Samuels struggling with Dysfunc- tional Benefit is exchanged for 34-year-old Jeremiah Brown, a ‘Skarrish’ immigrant to Uhmerika (Kelman writes as he speaks, which may be a problem for those unfamiliar with ‘Glesga patter’)railing against life as a Red Card Class III ‘unassimilatit alien furnir’. In YHTBCITLOTF we are post-9/11, although nothing is made specific, and Uhmerika is one vicious, suspicious conspiracy theory run by ‘Pentagon fuckers’. Jerry, a typical West of Scotland socialist, has a ticket home and it is on his final evening after eight years in the USA (he starts off talking about 12 years, but finally comes clean) that Kelman sets his now trademark stream-of-consciousness interior monlogue. Through this we learn, eventually, unreliably and in random order, of Jerry’s ex-lover Yasmin, who sings the blues, his four-year-old daughter, his gambling, his bottom-of-the-foodchain jobs in the booze trade and domestic security and his desire to be a literary sensation.

Jerry is neither an attractive man nor a deep thinker. Every American who wields authority is, to him, a fascist bastard and his ongoing obsession with his own alien status seems, for a Scot in the land of Andrew Carnegie, a little hysterical. Nevertheless, those Kelman fans who ploughed through the almost impenetrable Translated Accounts will be relieved that YHTBCITLOTF is easier reading. I do wonder, though, if they will be disappointed that Scotland’s most famous anti-intellectual intellectual has not continued down the new route that Translated Accounts seemed to prefigure, but, despite the American setting, has made the short leap home. You can meet Jerry Brown in every bar in Glasgow and the fucking cunting leave-everything-in style which shocked or thrilled in the 1990s is now old hat.

Yet during Jerry Brown’s grumbling, rambling and rather too lengthy diatribe — he is, at times, little more than a whingeing pub bore — there are the usual Kelmanesque flashes of dark humour and brilliantly detailed quirky observations. Laid out in all its bizarre glory is the ‘persian bet’, survive or perish insurance deals negotiated by the financially desperate, and the oddities of ‘pooch patrol’ in US airports. In short, YHTBCITLOTF is the American dream, tempered by the terrorist threat, filtered through the experiences of a chippy Glaswegian with no money. It won’t be to everybody’s taste.

However, as often with Kelman, just when you are crying ‘no more!’ something lifts, and in this book it is Jerry’s relationship with Yasmin, a relationship which finally founders on the misheard timing of a ‘piss-stop’ as they travel to a gig in which she is singing. Yasmin, sadly, remains tantalisingly elusive, as do so many of Kelman’s women. It would have been nice to have had more of her and less of almost everything else. But that is not Kelman’s way. He gives us what he wants to give us, not what he thinks we might like or hope for and when this works it works extremely well. Whether it works here will, I think, be cheerfully disputed in Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip over many a uisghé. Slainté!