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Worthwhile for the Strongest Stories
on 29 January 2012
This book was published in 1983 and contained 26 short stories. It was the author's first large collection published in the U.K.
The locations were often unnamed but assumed to be Glasgow and its surroundings. A few of the stories had settings elsewhere, such as London or Manchester.
Just over half were written in the first person. Some of these were little more than vignettes: "He Knew Him Well," about the desperate circumstances of an old pensioner, and Wee Horrors," which ended atmospherically with a parent searching an abandoned tenement for his children. Other stories were longer. A few of these were stream-of-consciousness monologues: "Nice to Be Nice," a narrator's blackly humorous recounting of a series of misfortunes; "No Longer the Warehouseman," about an angst-ridden older man's unsuitability for life; and darkest of all, "Not Not While the Giro," in which a younger man contemplated life and death while counting the days before his unemployment check arrived.
Other stories in the first person focused more on other people and external action: "The Hitchhiker," in which a man struggled to connect with a foreign woman; "The Bevel," in which a work crew was ill used by their manager; and "Remember Young Cecil," describing a pool player who prospered for a time before marrying and turning his attention on work. In it, maybe the least grim of the stories, in earlier days there'd been a sense of mateship among the men.
One of the monologues, "Nice to Be Nice," has been described as the author's earliest published attempt at phonetic transcription of a Scottish voice. From beginning to end, it read, for example, like "A hid tae stoap 2 flerrs up tae git ma breath back." The rest of the works were in standard English, more or less.
Of the 11 stories written in the third person, too many were mere vignettes. Of these, the most enjoyed were "An Old Pub Near the Angel," in which a Scotsman in England was baffled by ill treatment at a pub; and "Roofsliding," purporting to be an anthropological description of men's behavior in Glasgow. But there were also longer pieces: "Away in Airdrie," about a boy's ill treatment by a relative, and "The Chief Thing about This Game," in which a factory recruit tried to fit in and maintain his dignity. It's been a long time since I read a story that captured what it must feel like to work in this setting.
The stories were grim with occasional humor. The narrator or protagonist was always a man, typically someone on the dole, at the factory or in fieldwork. Typical problems, stated or not, were the lack of most things necessary for a satisfying life: sufficient money and food, a secure home, camaraderie and a meaningful job, a sense of purpose, and love or even sex. And yet despite everything, like Beckett's narrator in The Unnamable, the characters went on.
For this reader, the stories were strongest at conveying the point of view of a male character facing deprivation. At their best, they were very memorable. With the lesser stories, sometimes things became monotonous or -- occasionally in the longest stories -- too repetitive. There was a lack of pieces with other points of view: women, children (except for one work), families, with meaningful conversation between men and women, or within families. The scant reference by this author to any type of political action or awareness was a bit of a surprise.
Among the Scottish writing this reader has read so far, this writer stands out for his focus on the urban underclass, drinking, gambling and begging, wedded -- especially in the first-person stories -- to the bleakness of tone and grim humor. (Works by Muriel Spark often shared the tone, but her writing often recalled a god looking down on its characters, whereas Kelman writes from the inside, so to speak, and his characters come from a harsher world.) Kelman wasn't the first Scottish author to make heavy use of the Scottish vernacular -- predecessors in prose included James Hogg, William Alexander, S. L. Crockett, James Barrie, R. L. Stevenson and John Buchan in the 19th century, and Ian MacLaren, Neil Munro and Robert McLellan in the 20th -- but his use of it is contemporary and the most distinctive.