Book Review: “How Late it Was, How Late” by James Kelman

How Late it Was, How LateHow Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sammy’s wisdom: “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt. That’s the story; the cot to the fucking funeral pyre.”

James Kelman won the Booker Prize for this novel, in 1994. It was, apparently, a controversial winner, mainly because of objections to the profane language. The book is in Scots dialect, from the point of view of Sammy. We first meet Sammy waking from a monster hangover, the cause of which he cannot remember. He soon picks a fight with some “sodjas” (policemen), and ends up in a police cell, waking again to find that he has lost his sight as a result of the beating he received. The rest of the book is his stream of consciousness as he comes to terms with this disaster, which it seems is just one of many, many disasters which have befallen him. He is estranged from his wife and son, his current girlfriend has disappeared, he has had spells in prison, there are suggestions of politically motivated violence, he has no money and, it seems, no friends he can rely on.

“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.”

I found Sammy a surprisingly sympathetic character. His outlook on life is philosophical, almost Buddhist at times. He holds no animosity towards the police who beat him. Towards the end, when his estranged son appears, their relationship is quite touching. Also evident is the kindness towards him of neighbours and Glasgow locals.

This is not an easy read. I’m not familiar with Scots, but perhaps my Irish / English origins made it fairly easy for me to understand. Others might find it hard going. But it is a tremendous achievement to hold the reader’s attention, as it did mine, by describing the inner thoughts of a newly blind man who exists on the margins of society, who utterly distrusts authority and has little hope of redemption.

“Waiting rooms. Ye go into this room where ye wait. Hoping’s the same. One of these days the cunts’ll build entire fucking buildings just for that. Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for.”

© Mike Hopkins 2019 (other than quotes from book)


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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“: