Lee Langley

Music, love and all things human

Dirt Road recalls the novelist’s teenage years in the American South, exploring grief, desperation and hope

When James Kelman won the Man Booker prize for How Late it Was, How Late, one judge stormed out, calling it ‘crap’ and the award a disgrace. A columnist counted the number of ‘fucks’ — apparently 4,000. This was 1994 and savage Glaswegian vernacular replete with rhythmic obscenities was terra incognita to English readers. Kelman was paving the way for followers like Irvine Welsh with Trainspotting and Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar. Scottish writers are part of the mainstream now, but Kelman, recognised as the godfather of modern Scottish writing, critically admired on both sides of the Atlantic, remains oddly uncelebrated south of the border.

His ninth novel, Dirt Road, is a strange and beautiful thing for those prepared to follow its meandering path. Drawing on Kelman’s recollections of his teenage years in the States, it tenderly explores grief and loss and a lonely boy’s passion for accordion music. No drunken losers in Glasgow gutters here, as Kelman captures the suffocating isolation of two people, frozen into silence, incapable of expressing their feelings or even everyday thoughts to one another.

The deaths of his mother and, earlier, his sister, have devastated 16-year-old Murdo and Tom, his oppressively controlling father. More out of desperation than hope of change, dad sets up a visit to relatives in Alabama. As always, he worries — about missing planes, buses, appointments, about being robbed, having an accident, causing offence. Above all, he wants to safeguard what he has left: his son.

The journey is disastrous from the moment they land in Memphis: the wrong bus, a missed connection, a wretched night in a rat-hole motel. But a stopover in a wayside Mississippi town proves life-changing for Murdo: he meets Sarah, a girl from the local convenience store, and her grandmother, an old Creole singer and musician.

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