Entertainment, Sunday, May 30,
2004, p. D15
Adrift in America
You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free
by James Kelman
Harcourt, 410 pages, $35Fiction
Scottish writer James Kelman gets compared to Samuel Beckett a little too
often and a little too lazily (Irvine Welsh, reviewing Kelman's You Have To Be
Careful In The Land Of The Free in the Guardian, said everyone should just quit
linking the two).
Kelman's long, rambling, solipsistic gutter monologues certainly resemble
those of Beckett's infamous trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The
Unnameable), but he uses them to a very different effect. Kelman is less
interested in free-floating, existential despair than in stupidly resilient
hope, especially as seen in the struggle between a tendency toward
self-destruction and an uncanny knack for survival that exists in oppressed
people - specifically, the Scottish working classes. What Beckett would lament
and even snicker at, Kelman can't help but admire.
Kelman's real talent is in voice, in revealing the natural evasions and
surprise truths of uninterrupted speech. This makes his work both precise and
sloppy. In short bursts, such as in the pieces collected in 1998's The Good
Times, or in his many acclaimed stories, Kelman can nail a character, a scene, a
whole culture in a few lines. Stretched out to novel length, however, this
precision becomes a liability - the central character reveals himself (it's
always a "he") so quickly that, however good the next few hundred pages are,
they feel like treading water. Even his 1994 Booker Prize-winning novel, How
Late It Was, How Late, would have been even more brilliant at half the length.
To bring back Beckett for a minute, its hard not to think of the brilliant
English short-story writer, memoirist and critic V.S. Pritchett attempting to
assess Beckett's novels and longing for someone to help "tell us where the words
are vocabulary only and where they connote ideas or things, where they are
propitiatory magic, where egomania filling time and place? Where is language
used for language's sake, and where it is used as a gabble-gabble ritual to make
tolerable the meaningless of life?"
Writers who let their books run free of restraint do so at the risk of
spoiling their creations rotten, letting them run and wail until they fall down
exhausted, the benefits of their own freedom overwhelmed by a tedious anarchy.
This problem is compounded in You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free.
Kelman invests all of the narrative responsibility in a character not compelling
enough on his own to carry the novel's 400-odd pages. Jeremiah Brown is a
34-year-old Scottish - or "Skarrisch" - emigrant who has been living in the
United States for the past 12 years. He has a young daughter with his "ex," a
jazz singer who is not "pink" like Jeremiah, and who lives now on the East coast
with the little girl while Jeremiah wanders.
When the book opens he is preparing to return to Scotland for a short visit,
one he has no intention of making permanent ("Imagine being trapped in the UK
forever!!"). We meet him in an unnamed Arizona town, leaving his crappy motel in
the middle of winter to find something to drink ("But I wasnay gauny get pissed.
To hell with the stereotype. I was sitting myself down for a relaxing couple of
beers and then it was home james don't spare the horses.").
After a tense encounter in a sports bar, he ends up in a more congenial place
across the street, and sits down to drink, wait for the band to set up and tell
Jeremiah is a decent guy - flawed, argumentative, with a gambling problem and
a complicated relationship with all that is America, yes, but also well-read and
stubbornly non-conformist and with a good taste in music. He's exactly the kind
of guy you want to meet at a bar. And here lies the problem: Jeremiah is too
likeable, and it is Kelman himself who is doing much of the liking.
However badly things go for Jeremiah, we always come down firmly on his side
- he's trying his best, after all. Up until the excellent last 30 or 40 pages,
when Jeremiah takes a wrong turn on the way to the men's room and finds himself
(very symbolically) lost in the streets of the town in the middle of the
blizzard, yelling at the buildings and threatened by passing dogs and the
police, the novel lacks urgency. For all its darkness, this is a strangely muted
Kelman is at his best when he allows us out of Jeremiah's head. The extended
bit about travellers gambling on their survival instead of buying insurance
feels out of place in the book, but Jeremiah's fumbling conversations with
average "Uhmerkins" are note-perfect, and easily carry the meaning the rest of
the book struggles to impart.
Kelman is also too smart a writer to get caught in the usual trap of a
British writer seeing in America only televangelism and porn and Manhattan
super-wealth and Texas oilmen and "Hollow-wood" stars with swimming pools in
Kelman's "land of the free" is a more dismally human one of service jobs and
paranoia and towns with no centre.
You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free threatens so often to break
through its own bloat with a more pointed vigour, that you can't help wishing
Kelman had given his narrator more to say, and less time to say it in.
Nathan Whitlock is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.
FROM 'YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL IN THE LAND OF THE FREE' (HARCOURT)
Category: Arts and Culture
Length: Long, 732 words
© 2004 Toronto Star. All rights reserved.