From The Washington Post
James Kelman -- winner of the Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late -- possesses an astonishing voice on the page, mixing interior monologue, colloquial speech, run-on sentences, the occasional Scots word (e.g., wean for child), fancy nouns to spark up a phrase (spleneticism) and every possible variant, employed at every possible moment, of the most common English vulgarism for sexual intercourse. Read a page of Kelman and you can't help but laud his sheer virtuosity, the ease with which he can shift tonal registers. Here is his protagonist, Jeremiah Brown, age 34, about to return to Glasgow after 12 years in America, stopping in a bar the night before he's due to climb on a plane. He admires a pretty waitress:
"I wasnay gauny talk to Sally about failed . . . relationships, given her hips swung when she set off walking from my table. Obviously it was unintentional. I know some guys, they would have thought she was doing it for their benefit but that was a lie sir, an uttah fabrication sir, you shame ma family sir, yasm."
Over the course of the long evening encompassed by the novel, Sally brings Jeremiah seven or eight beers and a glass of whiskey, which he spills. He sits there at his table, occasionally glares at the bar's manager, converses for a while with an elderly couple, eventually wanders out into the snowy night. But for the most part he just drinks, not to forget but to remember. He recalls his life in America: gambling at cards, bartending, working as a security agent at an airport. Most of all, he returns, again and again, to his love for his "ex" and their child (a girl who is never named). Yasmin has left him because he's proven such a failure at everything. And so he rambles on about the past dozen years, those low-paying, dead-end jobs, Yasmin's gigs as a jazz vocalist (Nina Simone is her model), his daughter, his periodic confrontations with authority, how he never had much and finally lost that. It is an old story. Jeremiah Brown could be any no-hoper morosely hunched there in a smoky corner, sipping one for his baby and ordering one more for the road.
Kelman makes Jeremiah's love for Yasmin the heart of his American experience, and their unofficial marriage is wrecked largely because he can never make enough money to rent a proper apartment, buy a decent car, truly support his family. Interestingly, Kelman avoids identifying Yasmin's race, and only near the novel's end do we know for sure that she is "dark brown" (and Jeremiah "pink"). The two simply love each other. The jazz singer's band members don't particularly take to the skinny Scot, this foreigner, and that might hint at racial prejudice. But that's about it. Such color-blindness is refreshing (if at least slightly unrealistic).
At more than 400 pages of largely relentless stream of consciousness, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free simply goes on too long. Like real drunks in real bars, Jeremiah can't tell a straight story and he doesn't know when to stop. Still he can be funny along the way. A friend of his sports a ludicrous mustache: "Like maist of us he had a tremendous regard for Pancho Villa but so what, it doesnay mean ye stop shaving." After losing at pool to a Mexican kid who makes, with ease, a miraculous, almost impossible shot, Jeremiah says, "For some reason I examined my cue. I kept my heid lowered. In the physical presence of spiritual beings ye have to." Sometimes the humor builds on the Scot's penchant for slapstick oratory, as when he explains why he always carries his papers with him:
"If I was tramping the mean streets in search of work and chanced into a bar or café and met somebody hiring help then whoosh, Here are ma papers sir. You need someone to pour a proper glass of stout sir? carry bricks and mortar sir, wear a kilt and wait table sir, wield a claymore sir, push a pen, pick a pocket, deal the cards, construct a database, settle a bet, perform minor heart surgery, sell ma body, write a screenplay, scramble up the rone pipe and enter that toty wee window and rob the Inkliz crown jewels?"
But mostly Jeremiah goes in for sorrowful and shrewd observations: "One relaxes into sentimentality, especially with women" or "She was one of these women men have difficulty walking beside. Except for loose-fitting trousers where would we be?" During his time with Yasmin he tries to write a private-eye novel but keeps forgetting his notebook, and then he blows his savings by attempting to win big at poker. Though he works hard, he never gets ahead. "How could people earn so little for so much? These are the questions that floor a body."
Jeremiah isn't uneducated. He's a left-wing radical, speaks fondly of second-hand bookshops, refers to Pat Hobby (from Scott Fitzgerald's late stories) and can even make jokes using classical music references. When a couple of straight-arrow security guys start to hassle him, he imagines that they might be Freemasons: "Maybe they would relax if I whistled the second movement of Mozart's clarinet concerto, the section used as a code by particular lodges in stressful situations." At times Kelman's revved-up prose sounds like that of Hunter Thompson or the dizzying English writer Iain Sinclair, albeit with a Glaswegian accent. But style alone just won't carry a long novel, and though we feel sorry for Jeremiah, Yasmin and the wean, and laugh or weep at the often absurdist comedy of their lives, we finally weary of the relentless soliloquizing. Should the book have been shorter? Probably. Or perhaps admirers of Kelman's past work, not to mention those wanting to give him a try, should just plan on savoring only a few pages at a time.
"What can a man do," asks Jeremiah, "except return life to its aching parts?" You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free touches movingly on many of those aching parts, but those parts, alas, don't quite make a whole.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I hadnay asked about food in the first place so how come she threw that in? I think I know why. I just cannay put it into words. But it turned my slow move to the door into a bolt for freedom. I had the anorak zipped right to the top, pulled the cap down low on my heid. Outside a freezing wind was blowing. Ye were expecting tumbleweed to appear but when it did it would be in the form of a gigantic snowball. While I walked I wondered why I was walking and why outside. Why the hell could I no just have stayed in the room, strolled up and down the motel corridor if I felt energetic. Better still, I could have read a book. Or even allowed myself to watch some television. Who could grumble about that; I was entitled to relax. Yet still I left the place and walked a mile in subArctic conditions. Mine was a compulsive, obsessive, addictive personality, the usual-plus I felt like a beer and the company of human beings; human beings, not tubes in a box or words on a page, and masturbation enters into that. In other words I was sick of myself and scunnered with my company, physically and mentally. And why was I gaun hame! I didnay even want to go hame. Yes I did.
No I didnay.
Yes I did.
No I didnay. No I ****ing didnay. It was an obligation. Bonné Skallin man it can only be an obligation. The faimly were there and one had to say hullo now and again. Posterity demands it of us. Once I am deid the descendants will be discussing departed ancestors: Who was that auld shite that lived in the States? Which one? Him that didnay come hame to visit his poor auld maw! Aw that bastard!
This is the obligation I am talking about.
But the reality was that my mother wasnay keeping too well. Let us put an end to the frivolity: if I wantit to see her again this seemed the time. I spoke to my brother on the phone. What an arsehole. Never mind, the point was taken, I had bought le billet with return scheduled a month from now and here I was. Yeh, the wind, and polar bears on the street. I like polar bears. And I like this part of the world. The auld ears, nevertheless, were being nipped at by icy spears. I settled into a catatonic march. Blocks of low-level factories and warehouses were on baith sides of the road, disused, some derelict. Maybe a cab would pass. I should have phoned one from the motel, I know that. But I didnay. Okay?
The wind whistled between buildings, rattling the roofs. Can the wind rattle the roofs? It did sound like that. This land was good land. But these capitalist ****ers and their money-grabbing politico sidekicks had turned it into a horror. I had an urge to write down my thoughts but where was my notebook? In my room at the Inn. And so what if it had been with me, in this gale it would have blown away or else my fingers would have froze and fell aff. I bought the notebook yesterday in a decent wee bookshop no too far from the bus station. It was a real surprise. But that can happen, ye enter a town in the middle of nowhere and discover some enthusiast has opened a bookshop. In this case a middle-aged couple who had grabbed their dough and skipped out of Denver or somewhere. So they opened a pure nirvana of a place. These folks were good folks. Although no doubt they were millionaires and the shop was a hobby. If their bookshop was in the vicinity and open I would have gone. I am convinced of that. But now it was evening and it surely would have been closed and how far away was I from the bus station? I had seen the day where I might have thought **** it and tried to hitch a ride but buddy, no just now.
The cheery neon sign blinking a welcome to weary travelers had nothing whatsoever to do with my decision. I saw it ahead, its fissures of light streaming upwards to the moon. Jeremiah Brown, grunted the sign-for such was my name-rest ye here oh weary one.
Sure, I replied. Show me yer fine food, yer fine beer, yer wine, yer spirits; and what about an Isla malt at an affordable price?
Walk straight ahead oh venerable one oh wise one, the gravelly voice intoned.
I was either hallucinating or a god had collared me for his ayn.
The place was huge and empty, built for stagecoachloads of customers who never arrived. There was something about it, like it had been abstracted from a 1940s movie, made for hotdogs and hamburgers and all kinds of similar fastfood sustenance. It was like it wasnay a bar at all it was really something else, a ****ing what do you call it, a restaurant.
A restaurant! It wasnay a bar at all, it was a goddam restaurant. There was a little bar right enough, set into a corner in the style of a rock and roll obsessed backwoodsman's den, Jim Bridger goes electric. You entered the den you entered the bar. There were ossified wee creatures and paintings of such; toads, squirrels, foxes and beavers, mink, a huge bear, game birds and big ****ing brown trout and carp; fishing rods and single barrel shotguns. Some interesting auld signs; one read PIKE'S PEAK OR BUST and another CALAMITY JANE'S ROCK N ROLL. Stuck alongside on the wall were 78 rpm records with sleeves, and LP and EP covers showing Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Franco Corelli and Eddie Cochrane. The bar was done in the image of a redwood tree trunk and the barstools looked like sawn-off portions of thinner trunks. Naybody here. I was about to vamoose but a guy had spotted me, poked his head out from behind a door and was across immediately. Yes sir how are you sir?
I'm fine, how's yerself in this here jungle?
Okay okay. He attempted a smile, it became a question.
I didnay bother explaining. Just a lite beer, I said, I dont care which brand, nor its state, nor yet its country of origin.
The guy attempted another smile. I rubbed my hands together. It's damn cauld tonight.
Yeh, gonna be snow later, maybe sooner.
Aye, it's in the air. Time for Santa Claus eh!
That bottle of beer later I skedaddled. To leave a bar on one such item isnay exactly typical. Maybe I had turned over a new leaf. If so naybody had telt me. Naybody never tells me ****ing nothing but so that is okay. If they did one might prepare.
I was gauny call a fare-thee-well to the bartender but he was out of sight, no doubt blethering to a lassie in the kitchen, if he was lucky enough to have a lassie in the kitchen. I worked in bars much of the time and I never had nay lassie in nay kitchen. It was just the usual sentimental ****ing shite man it came pouring out my brains. The reality is the guy in this bar was living a boring nightmare. What chance did he have? What life lay ahead? What
Right, on we go. And so did I, out the door. In the lobby I phoned a cab which is what I should have considered back in the Away Inn. Never mind. Ten minutes later I was in the backseat of an elderly Lincoln, just about my favourite jalopy, that yin with the unEuropean lines, which is what I liked about it, it was just so ****ing unEuropean. Times have changed for the better when the taxis are elderly Lincolns. Yes sir. There was a large sign pinned to the rear window.
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