Book Review: “Dirt Road” by James Kelman

Dirt RoadDirt Road by James Kelman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Purely by accident, this is the second book I’ve read recently which delves into the mind of a musician. The first, Anna Goldsworthy’s “Piano Lessons” is biographical, set in the suburbs of Adelaide. “Dirt Road”, by James Kelman, is a novel, set initially in the Scottish Isles, and then moving to the deep south of the U.S.A. “Piano Lessons” took us into the long, arduous process of a young girl learning about her instrument and about music through long, long hours of practice, under an inspirational mentor. “Dirt Road” is a snapshot of a few weeks in the life of a teenage prodigy, Murdo, who is able to channel music from within, apparently without effort.

“Dirt Road” is also about the relationship between a father and son, shortly after they’ve been afflicted with family tragedy. They travel together to relatives in a small Alabama town. Both are damaged in their own way, both are dysfunctional and their relationship is strained.

Kelman provides great insight into the mind of a damaged teenager, who is struggling with all of the awkwardness and self-doubt which afflicts most boys in their teens, but in Murdo’s case is magnified by his own and his father’s grief. Fortunately for Murdo, he has his musical gifts to rescue him. The way that Kelman takes us into Murdo’s head, and is able to take us into the musical world that Murdo inhabits, is the strongest part of this book for me.

The interaction between father and son, the misunderstandings, the almost deliberate miscommunications, the unwillingness to share their emotions are all well told. So too are the episodes describing the hardness of life in small town, evangelical Alabama.

Much of the book is written as Murdo’s stream of consciousness. There is a generous sprinkling of Scots dialect, but I sense that this has been pared back so as not to exclude an international audience. I did become a little tired of Murdo’s constant exclamation: “Jeesoh”.

This is an engaging book. There are a number of key plot turns and coincidences which I did not find completely convincing. The apparent ability of Murdo to prodigiously play styles of music with which he was completely unfamiliar, at the drop of a hat almost, did not convince me either.

However, apart from these reservations, James Kelman is an author I shall follow.

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Footnote. “Dirt Road” is being made into a feature film called “Dirt Road to LaFayette“:

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