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You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free Hardcover – May 17, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Booker Prize-winning Kelman (How Late It Was, How Late) returns with another exuberant novel steeped in Scottish dialect. Jeremiah Brown, the 32-year-old Scottish narrator, has lived in the United States for more than 12 years, acquiring an ex-girlfriend, a daughter ("the wean" he calls her) and a string of dead-end jobs. The novel is a chatty record of his last night in the country, before he returns to Glasgow (in the country of "Skallin," as he calls it) to see his ailing mother. As Jeremiah bar-hops in an unnamed Midwestern town, drinking beer after beer, he reflects on his life as an immigrant ("I read someplace the emigrants werenay the best people, the best people steyed at hame"), his relationship with Yasmin and their daughter, and just about anything else that pops into his head: "I had naybody to talk to, it was just my ayn fantastic inner dramatics." The effect is like being captive audience to a drunk, sad, funny, bitter, paranoid but hopeful man who has thus far in his life "messed things up." The novel can feel claustrophobic at times, since the reader is trapped in Jeremiah's rambling mind. But Kelman pulls off this literary feat, aided by the undeniable charm and appeal of Jeremiah. The reader becomes easily acclimated to his Scottish vernacular ("I didnay even want to go hame"), which lends the work authenticity and immediacy-his voice resonates as he veers from story to story, only interrupting himself to order another beer and take in his surroundings. Kelman's latest will please and reward readers patient enough to pull up a chair and listen.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Jeremiah Brown, Kelman's narrator, is a Scottish immigrant living in an America subtly different from our own, where the homeless haunt the nation's airports, betting on frequent airline disasters, and immigrant workers are strictly classified depending on their politics. Brown speaks to us, as Kelman's characters do, with a thick "Skarrisch" accent. He speaks to us relentlessly, jumping from the present to the past, circling around the subjects that obsess and bedevil him. These include his reluctance to return to Scotland and the shambles he has made of his life with his ex-girlfriend and their daughter. He is both an optimist and a fatalist. He knows that he is doomed to continue making dumb choices, but he is endlessly hopeful that everything will somehow turn out all right. Kelman's prose has a wonderful rhythm as his character rails repeatedly against the inequities of class systems, the vagaries of love, and himself. Despite his gambling, his drinking, and his bouts of self-loathing, Brown is a compelling character and well worth your time. Patrick Wall
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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'You Have to Be Careful...' is in some ways reminiscent of 'How Late It Was, How Late'. Specifically the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, the Scottish dialect, the mistrust & issues with authority, the outsider main character. However, in this case, our protagonist, Jeremiah Brown, is an immigrant to America, living there for 12 years, and about to return home to Scotland to visit his mam who is getting on in years and not doing too well. The interior monologue happens over the course of an evening spent drinking at a couple of bars in Rapid City, South Dakota.
It's not quite the "real" America we see in this book, but it's close enough to be (scarily) believable. Paranoia, disillusionment, and a feeling of alienation plague Jeremiah, who views his life of chronic bad luck as a struggle with the fates. It's no wonder he wants to be anywhere but in his head, as he tells us.
Kelman has important things to say-- don't let the casual style fool you-- and he says them without resorting to blunt force trauma. You have to be careful with the heads of your readers. Kelman is an author who understands this.
Sort of. Everything is "sort of" in the novel. All of Jeremiah's flashback meditations are filled with qualifications upon qualifications. He's the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. The narration, as mentioned by other reviewers, is a combination of an odd Scottish vernacular (of course, it's Kelman), erudition and humour. The stumbling block for many a Kelman admirer - one who is already accustomed to Kelman's idiosyncratic offshoots of Glaswegian dialect - will be this unreliability. The interior monologue narration that comprises the greater part of the book is nearly completely belied by the story he tells to an older couple during the last hundred pages or so of the book. Also, there are several "in" jokes that nobody seems to have caught. Jerry's "Red Card" is his membership card to the IWW, the International Workers of the World, which still exists. One may even view a picture of said card on Wikipedia, which truly does look like something that would boil the blood of any midwestern, Commie-hating American. There is no "Red Card" issued by the United States INS. Very droll. But I digress a bit, then again so does the book.
Other reviewers are quite spot-on in their comparison of the work to Beckett; For, whilst Kelman is, prima facie, a sort of anti-Beckett stylistically in the circumlocutory discursiveness taken to the extreme, what I would say is the theme of the book, death and the illusoriness of any sureties in the world or, more to the point, a text, is right out of Beckett's playbook. I think the book is best read as a sort of swan song to life cum deathbed meditation:
"But the world as encountered by its present-day spirited occupants is a dark and fusty arena where fearsome shadows are encountered. We rarely know what is true."
So, as Jerry stumbles out into the snow and draws ever closer to severe hypothermia and his ramblings become ever more hallucinatory and one is reminded of a certain short story by Jimmy Joyce, it seems clear where all this is heading.
In the end, despite the thematic darkness, one can't help end with a lovely passage towards the close of the narrative wherein Jerry is contemplating his ex-girlfriend, Yasmin, the love of his life:
"Ye bring colour and light and radiance and spiritual music, that extra dimension, ye fill people's lives with cheerfulness, richness, breadth and diversity."
Aye, despite the often paranoid and dour ramblings, so does this book.
As he reminisces about his life, especially his life with his "ex-wife" Yasmin, whom he never married, and their daughter, now four years old, he shows himself to be aimless, "a non-assimilatit alien...Aryan Caucasian atheist, born loser...big debts, nay brains." A compulsive gambler, pool player, and heavy drinker, Jerry has held a series of dead end jobs, the only kinds of jobs, he tells us, that are open to immigrants with Class III Red Cards--primarily bar-tending and nighttime airport security work.
The novel follows no logical time frame, spooling out from Jerry's memories in more or less random fashion. We observe his relationship with Yasmin, his "ex-wife," and meet his acquaintances, including Suzanne and Miss Perpetua, two other security guards from the Alien and Alien Extraction Section who also patrol the periphery of the airport car park where he works; two down-and-out war vets, Homer and Jethro, who sleep wherever they can find warmth and space; and "the being," a grocery cart pusher who frequently disappears into thin air and about whose gender bets have been made.
Obviously, plot is not the focus here. In choosing to recreate Jerry's aimless inner life in such a realistic way, however, the author has created a character who does not change or gain the self-awareness that makes his life relevant to most readers. As a character, Jerry does not really engage the reader, and that seems to be part of the author's point: Jerry is and always will be an outsider. Humor, most of it dark, permeates the novel, and an episode with "the being" in the airport VIP lounge is hilarious, but the ending is startling in its abruptness and may surprise readers. Kelman the iconoclast has, once again, produced an unusual and iconoclastic novel in which he experiments with form and structure, bringing to life a character who remains forever on the periphery, even for the reader. Mary Whipple