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You have to be persistent in the land of Kelman
on 14 November 2005
It's not easy being a James Kelman fan. You often find yourself defending him from the eternal optimists who think he's just a sour-faced old Weegie with an axe to grind. Then there's the London circle of the so-called 'quality' papers, lambasting his vulgarity and 'unnecessary' swearing . And to top it all, with his last effort, 'Translated Accounts', Kelman gave us a novel without chapters, characters or setting, a 300 page exercise in unreadability. The devil!
Yet we endure all this happily for the following reason. Kelman is one of very the few writers out there who combines genuine literary talent with a true appreciation of what real life is really like for the average Joe, a million miles away from that which the dons of News, TV and advertising would have us believe.
In 'You Have to Be Careful...', Kelman has evidently decided to treat us, the faithful few, to a slighly less-demanding but no-less serious a novel as 'Translated Accounts'. We get a protagonist, ex-patriate Scot Jeremiah Brown. We get a setting, an anonymous town in the backwater of the American Mid-West. We even get a love interest, ex-girlfriend Yasmin, albeit through Jeremiah's memories alone. Lucky us!
The plot, so much as there is one (Kelman's not big on once-upon-a-time), is that Jeremiah, a Glaswegian, self-proclaimed 'unassimilatit alien' living in America, is holed up in a bar for a night (when he really should be catching a plane home as he promised his mother he would), letting his thoughts slide freely between past and present, hopes, fears and regrets. In this sense, the novel is really just an extended character study, but one which takes us deep into the psyche of a character caught between two worlds, not completely at ease in either.
This is a definite return to form for Kelman, a writer who takes his art very seriously indeed. Although it may lack the punch of 'How Late it Was, How Late', or the complexity of 'A Disaffection', 'You Have to Be Careful...' stakes its worth in its creation of a character both flawed and dignified, pessimistic and witty. And by elucidating his personal history, full of the simple tragedies and triumphs that all ordinary people go through, Kelman performs that rare Frankensteinean feat of bringing his character to life.
'You Have to Be Careful...' is a wonderfully liberated account of one man's experiences on the other side of the pond, and with its subtle yet sardonic attack on the US Immigration Service, Kelman is as politically charged as ever.