A Novel by James Kelman
Book Review © copyright 2013 by Sara Jacobelli
Welcome to the bleak underworld of Scotland inhabited by Sammy, a foul-mouthed, ex-con, small-time crook and down-on-his-luck-drunk who trusts no one, loves American country music and dreams of being a singing, guitar strumming pick-up driving Texas cowboy. Written in working class Glasgow dialect, author James Kelman doesn’t just describe his Scottish anti-hero in this engrossing novel, he places you completely inside of his mind. You suffer with Sammy when he wakes up, dazed, sore, and blinded after a senseless beating by the Glasgow police, who he calls “sodgers.”
Sammy is alone, terrified, and defiant as he negotiates the chaotic Dysfunctional Benefits office, attempts to cross the street with a lopped off broom-stick as a cane, gets hassled by the cops for various crimes he didn’t commit, and rebuffs the attention of a slimy, smooth talking, ambulance-chasing lawyer who thinks Sammy should sue the police. Sammy just wants to be left alone, he’s afraid to press charges for a very justified fear of more retribution.
Sammy decides to relax with a pint at a noisy neighborhood pub after an exasperating day spent trying to get public assistance; the callous social workers and doctors refuse to believe he’s blind and want him to continue in his previous occupation, construction work. Out in the close he rolled a smoke. He had decided: he was going for a fucking pint. These were victories; ye’ve got to celebrate them. Otherwise ye forget ye’ve won them. Saturday dinnertime man come on, ye didnay have to be a fucking alky to fancy a couple of beers. Alright he had been itching. So what? It wasnay a big deal. Christ if ye couldnay have a pint at Saturday dinnertime ye would be as well throwing in the towel aw the gether. Fucking life I’m talking about.
Sammy lies awake on his bunk, back in his old jail cell a week after his beating. The police have picked him up again, once more roughing him up, demanding information Sammy doesn’t have about some underworld character named Charlie, who Sammy barely knows. Another guy was in the cell with him. He made nay attempt to talk. No that Sammy minded. He wasnay in the mood for wee stories-from-the-police-courts. Fuck me but he felt auld. Too auld for this carry on. The last thing he needed was another stretch. He would nay be able to handle it. That was the truth.
Lyrics from hauntingly sad Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline songs rattle through his head as Sammy drinks endless cups of tea and struggles to survive in his new, frightening, dark world. Muttering, grumbling, stumbling, and complaining, but never giving up, he ruminates about his fate. It’s just how they suffocate ye; all their fucking protocols and procedures, all designed to stop ye breathing, to grind ye to a halt; ye’ve no to wander and ye’ve no to breathe, ye’ve no to open yer mouth. Ye’re to keep in line and don’t move a muscle; just fucking stand there till ye’re telt different.
At age 38, Sammy looks back with wry humor at his wasted life of fist-fighting, drinking, pub-crawling, the regrets of failed relationships and a teenaged son he barely knows, his eleven years in prison, the death of his unhappy father, a succession of dead-end jobs, old friends died young, and the cruel, cold, poverty of the rainy Glasgow streets. But he perseveres. It’s worse than a nightmare, cause it’s happening. It’s round ye, and ye cannay see fuck all else. Jesus Christ, so ye need yer survival plans. Ye’ve got to have them.
Author’s Note: Although this novel was originally published in 1994 and takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, I believe that those in 2013 New Orleans can relate to the story.
All excerpts from the book are in italics.
Kelman, James. 1994. How Late It Was, How Late. W.W. Norton and Company, First Edition.
Photo Credit: “Slum in Glasgow, 1871,” by Wikipedia. Public Domain Photo.