James Kelman

"You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 24, 2004)

"Corner of the bar, corner of the booth, corner of the table. I was on the periphery is what I am saying. The perennial eavesdropper man I was a voyeur. But that was fine because I read someplace this is how writers operate; no all writers but some, they go about collecting vital informational data concerning movements and behavioral patterns of the human species. They say nothing and hear everything."

You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free by James Kelman

Jeremiah Brown, another of Booker Prize-winner James Kelman's down-and-out protagonists, thinks of himself as a writer and keeps a notebook into which he jots down his observations about his life, recording them in the vernacular in which he thinks—phonetic spellings ("Skallin" for Scotland, "wean" for wee one, "Uhmerkin" for American, for example); variations of the F-word, used as every known part of speech; and non-stop run-on sentences and paragraphs. No chapters interrupt or divide the stream-of-consciousness narrative, told by Jeremiah, as he sits in a series of bars in Rapid City, South Dakota, the night before he is supposed to begin his trip home to Glasgow, with non-refundable tickets which will take him there by way of Seattle, Montreal, Newfoundland, Iceland, Amsterdam, and Edinburgh, a tortuous journey which will save him $130.

As he works his way from bar to bar that snowy winter night, prior to leaving for the airport, he reminisces about his life, especially his life with his "ex-wife" Yasmin, whom he never married, and his daughter, now four years old, who are in New York. This is to be his first trip home in eight years, only the second trip in twelve years, and he has mixed feelings about reconnecting with his mother, his family, and his friends who stayed behind in Glasgow. In "Uhmerka," however, he is always an outsider, someone he himself describes as "a non-assimilatit alien…Class III Redneck Card carrier, Aryan Caucasian atheist, born loser, keeps nose clean, big debts, nay brains, big heid." 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 Red Cards—primarily bar-tending and night-time airport security work.

The novel follows no logical time frame, spooling out from Jerry's memories in more or less random fashion. We learn that though he is a reformed smoker, he is an unrepentant gambler who has lost thousands of dollars in every known betting scheme, and that he has traveled through casinos, legal and illegal, from Texas to Nevada and eventually the West Coast with a friend, Haydar. Persian bets (on whether travelers will survive airplane crashes) have long been a particular favorite of the poor who hang out at airport car parks, where Jerry has been working a security detail. We get to know the people he knows, including Yasmin, his "ex-wife," a jazz singer he adores, and with whom he has toured by car and bus from New York to Denver. His "friends" include 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; 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 at the airport, and about whose gender bets have been made. As Jerry says, "Everybody vanishes, that is what life is, unresolved business."

Some of Jerry's memories take on a life of their own, and his story of "the being" is one of them, the most humorous episode in the novel, full of mystery, reflective of the attitudes of Jerry and the people he works with, and illustrative of the little guy/gal winning over those in control. When "the being" manages to get inside the airport VIP lounge to explode his grocery cart, the reader is as amused as Jerry is at the victory of "the being" over the stuffy "suits" who control Jerry's life.

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 the episode with "the being" in the airport VIP lounge is downright 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 will remain forever on the periphery, even for the reader. Kelman faced controversy for his style when his 1994 novel, How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize. That controversy may continue with this novel.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews


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About the Author:

James KelmanJames Kelman was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1946, the son of a picture-framer and restorer. He left school at 15 to take an apprenticeship in the printing industry. and lived in the US briefly, when his parents emigrated, as well as London and Edinburgh. He began writing at the age of 22, in his free time between shifts. In 1971 he joined a creative-writing class and published his first work, the short story collection, An Old Pub Near the Angel and Other Stories in 1973 at the age of 27.

Kelman's reputation was built slowly and steadily, his books establishing him as the foremost writer in the Scottish vernacular of working class life. He won the Cheltenham Prize in 1987 for Greyhound for Breakfast; the James Tait Black Prize in 1989 for A Disaffection (which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late it Was, How Late. In 1998 he was awarded the Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award and the Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year for his collection of short stories The Good Times. Kelman has also penned several plays, including Hardie and Baird, Le Rodeur, In The Night and The Return.

James lives in Glasgow, Scotland with his wife and family.

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