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  1. I have previously read two Kelmans - You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, and A Disaffection. From these two, I understood Kelman to be a master of the interior monologue of mundane/seedy characters. In YHTBC, it was a Scots alcoholoc in the USA, looking to return home. In Disaffection, it was a pretty hopeless teacher failing to hit it off with a pretty work colleague. I thought YHTBC was a masterpiece, but A Disaffection left me rather cold. The thing is, with these monologues, that you have to actually care about the character and his life - there's no plot or action worth speaking of, just a question of how the chaarcter got to the present situation and how they feel about it. The action is at best incidental. In How Late It Was, How Late, the central character, Sammy (Mr Samuels) is a natural victim. He is afraid of authority and is hopelessly fatalistic. He wakes up after a bender, in the street, wearing rubbish trainers instead of his good shoes. He sees some policemen and picks a fight with them. He is arrested, beaten up and loses his sight. The monologue then sets out to explore how he came to be in that situation - apparently he is an ex-prisoner who has had a big row with his girlfriend; he also has an ex-wife and son; he has a reasonable set of friends; and a benefit dependency. HLIWHL also explores how Sammy reacts to his sight loss. He initially curses his luck, but is fatalistically accepting, as he tries to find his way home from the police station. He has to decide how to become mobile and to feed himself. He is worried about losing his benefits (no longer available for work) so he sets off to the Broo. Sammy's natural instinct when dealing with authority is either to say nothing or to lie. This he does with aplomb, even though he might have been better served by telling the truth. He cannot explain how he lost his sight without mentioning the police, but he doesn't want to take on the police in a battle for compensation. One is left in admiration for Sammy's resourcefulness as he tries to avoid seeking help from others. This adds to Sammy's complexity - that he would willingly accept the broo, but won't accept the help of an individual. But gradually, Sammy comes to see that he has to accept help and you can feel his pride ebbing into the pavement as he does. Sammy brings misfortune on himself - and he knows this to be true - but without ever being malicious. He is just weak. His stoicism as he bears his punishments is remarkable, even though they seem to be out of all proportion to the original offence. To an extent this might be through cultivating a state of denial, but there is also a very practical attitude of dealing with the future rather than worrying about the past. The text is very intense, and although it is possible to gallop through pages in short bursts, I found the need to escape frequently. The result is that I spent quite a while travelling along with Sammy. I feel I have grown from the experience. *****
  2. Murdo’s mother has died. His sister died a few years earlier, both of some kind of genetic cancer. It only affects the women. Murdo and his Dad Tommy have decided to spend some time away from their home on the west coast of Scotland. They have gone to stay with Uncle John in Alabama. They arrive in Memphis Airport after a gruelling journey via Glasgow and Amsterdam; Murdo has forgotten his phone and Dad has forgotten his driving licence. They head for the buses. They don’t talk much and when they do, they seem to be treading on eggshells. It seems destined to be a long holiday. Murdo is very self-absorbed. He seems to live in a dreamworld where other people and the practicalities of life don’t exist. Changing buses in Allentown, an almost exclusively black town in northern Mississipi, Murdo is distracted in the lavatory and so goes off on a wander up the street. The connection is missed so Murdo and Tommy have to bunk down for the night in the local motel, waiting for tomorrow’s bus. This gives Murdo a chance to wander some more and stumble across a family playing music in their backyard. The vibe is like nothing Murdo has heard before. He has discovered Queen Monzee-ay, zydeco queen of the accordion – who also happens to have a very pretty granddaughter Sarah… … so Murdo picks up an accordion – the instrument he plays in a Highland band in Scotland – and joins in. He is so good that Queen Monzee-ay suggests he plays with her in a festival in Lafayette the weekend after next. Murdo would love to, but doesn’t know how to ask his father. This provides the narrative drive for the rest of the novel and, particularly, for a gruesome couple of weeks holed up with Uncle John in smalltown Alabama, eating bland food, walking the shopping mall for entertainment and being forced to endure The Gathering – an awful assembly of plastic Scots singing racist anthems and telling tales of fiery crosses back in the ancestral Homeland. Dirt Road had the potential to be maudlin, but instead it took a path that was uplifting. Murdo is a shy boy who has led a sheltered life that seems to have been largely devoid of passion. He feels a strong need to please his father even when it comes at the expense of his own personal wellbeing. Murdo has the power to be frustrating – just a little too quiet and insular. He has a tendency to make self-centred decisions that take insufficient account of other people’s feelings. However, he clearly has a charm because the reader hopes that he comes good in the end, and the reader winces each time he makes a move that might hinder him in his quest. He is unhurried and sometimes seems guileless. Yet underneath it all is a determination when it really matters. Murdo will not pretend to share the values of religious bigotry of those around him. Whilst he is appalled when it is suggested he might be joking – the implication being that joking is rude and frivolous – he will call Dad and Uncle John on their racism. He seems comfortable in his own skin and has a self-confidence that is strong for all it is not demonstrative. This seduces the true artists and musicians he meets along the Dirt Road, and it seduces the reader. Go Murdo! *****
  3. I guess James Kelman isn't everyone's cup of tea. He seems (from reading only two of his works!) to do interior monologue of down at heel, ordinary folk very well. The trouble is, the interior monologue of down at heel, ordinary folk can be quite repetitive and rather dull. And, in case anyone is wondering, nothing happens. There isn't some brilliant twist that pulls it together at the end. Wysiwyg. Having read A Disaffection, I feel that I know Patrick Doyle pretty well.I understand his failings and inadequacies. I understand how he is envious of his brother's family, as his brother is envious of Partick's education and job. I understand how hopeless is his infatuation with Alison and his inability to deal with women. But I'm not sure it was worth investing two weeks of very slow reading to get to this point. Maybe I'm just shallow... Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate the book. Neither do I imagine it will fade from the memory as quickly as the latest murder mystery. It is a deep study of human nature. But I'm quite glad now to have my hands on a murder mystery as an antidote. ***00
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