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You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free

By James Kelman

At first sight this significant new novel by Booker Prize winner James Kelman (for 1994’s How late it was, how late) seems an unappetising affair: a 34-year-old American immigrant, Jeremiah Brown, is flying home to Scotland tomorrow to see his ailing mother after twelve years away, and has just stepped out of his motel room for a quick drink or two to relax before the journey. Although, such is his self-knowledge, he ponders the wisdom of this move, telling himself he should really stay in and have a sandwich and ogle the goggle box, his equally ample capacity for self-deception wins this particular battle, and it soon becomes inevitable that we will be spending the evening, and the next 437 pages, inside Jeremiah’s head, as he gets progressively pissed.

Jeremiah is, as he readily acknowledges, a flawed character. He drinks, he gambles, he is prone to obsessive paranoiac (or are they?) outpourings, he is estranged from ‘the ex’ – nightclub singer Yasmin – and their four-year-old daughter. He is also a failed, or rather, unpublished writer, who knows that he can ‘talk a good book’, even if he has never written, or rather, finished one. Yet, such is his charm, and his precarious position in his adopted country as an unassimilated, unintegrated alien, that he slowly gets our sympathy, and we are touched by his tough, humane decency.

 

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Jerry has a red card which, with its connotations of left-wing allegiances and of being sent off, is both literally and metaphorically much lower down the food chain than a green or blue one. It entitles him to work, but to little else – certainly not to a credit card on his difficult-to-open bank account. He is also called upon to produce it as soon as he opens his mouth anywhere and people hear his accent, most notably by bartenders. This is something of an irony, since the greater part of his work experience is in bar-tending, or ‘the booze trade’ as he calls it. (‘She sings the blues and I sling the booze’ he tells one inquirer as to what Yasmin and he do.) That is until he decides he would like to become a solid citizen and family man, and lands a job in airport security.

But these poorly-paid, long-hours vacancies have arisen only because of the rise of ‘The Persian Bet’, a ‘Survive or Perish’ insurance deal taken out by bankrupts and other would-be suicides before flights on dodgy airlines, which pay off if the insured dies, or if they sustain any injuries but manage to survive. ‘Soon the bookies, media commentators and society leaders strove to find a non-evaluative term or phrase to describe a suicide, e.g. “a wannabe-dead”, something that wasnay too positive but at the same time wouldnay alienate the air-travelling public.’ This singular form of travel insurance soon attracts much of the flotsam and jetsam of the contemporary American underbelly, since ‘a significant proportion of those who speculated on the “persian bet” were poverty-stricken bodies on an income so far below what official government experts reckoned it took to stay alive that the term “income” was dropped. These included young folks and asylum-seekers, immigrants, refugees; war vets, down-and-outs, alcoholics, addicts; unwantitorphans and homeless people; people with mental and psychological disorders; people with long histories of abuse, disabilities and deficiencies. It was like a majority of the population: the millions of daily would-be suicides, those who spend three-fifths of their waking hours dreaming of how to accomplish death in as unobtrusive, unselfish and unirresponsible a manner as possible.’ When they start raffling airline tickets in airport car parks, and generally clogging up departure lounges, extra security staff are needed to move them on.

It is patronising to applaud Kelman as merely the finest practitioner there is of Scottish vernacular writing, since in addition to that considerable achievement, what he does here is actually far more sophisticated than that as well. By skipping backwards and forwards through the narrator’s memories, and framing them within his current situation, we build up through an episodic structure a thoroughly enthralling picture of his life in exile. And if you think it looks easy, just you try doing it. While there are few concessions to the reader – the entire book runs from beginning to end without chapters or even line breaks – Kelman still manages to say more from the ground up about life in the USA today than any amount of writing-programmed, effete, New Yorker stylists ever could.

The ‘events of 9/11’ are never explicitly referenced, but this is because Kelman understands, in a way that middle-of-the-road commentators like Martin Amis never could, that if it took such a seismic occurrence to act as a wake-up call, then things must have been pretty bad before it happened. 9/11 was not ‘the day the world changed’, as CNN would have us believe, merely the day one half of the world found out what the other half was thinking. Similarly, it is useless to fault Kelman for presenting only one half of the picture, that of the underclass, because he is more aware than most of how the supposed ‘end of history’ and the rise of global capitalism in the west over the last fifteen years have created a two tier society, with those not rich enough to buy themselves out, or those too poor through lack of education and training, or ill-health, or simple inability to fit in, required to suffer the vagaries of the corporo-bureaucratic weave, with its daily manglings of language and attempts to control reality. His half of the story is the one we usually don’t hear.

All of which may beg the question: why is Jeremiah in the country in the first place? Well, there is the example of a quixotic ancestor, whose name he shares, a pioneer who made good in the land of the free. And, as he tells us early on: ‘That is how people exile themselves, to avoid hurting their faimlies and friends. I had two faimlies; one here and one back in the UK. I now was exiting here. Where the fuck else was I gauny go?’

This novel is not perfect; but then, no novel is. Such sustained buttonholing can wear a body down, leading you wonder does Kelman know the difference between an effective short story and a novel, while some readers may find the ending curiously inconclusive and unsatisfying. But, for all that, in terms of its scope, ambition, energy and vision, it is safe to say that James Kelman is a great writer, and everyone should read him.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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