Taking the elephant in the room on a road trip
Fiction: Dirt Road, James Kelman, Canongate, hdbk, 388 pages, €22.50
James Kelman's new novel is typically dotty but oddly likeable, finds Anthony Cummins.
In 1994, James Kelman was criticised for the difficulty (and profanity) of How Late it Was, How Late, his novel about a blind Glaswegian ex-convict's stream of consciousness, which won that year's Booker Prize. One of the judges called it "deeply inaccessible crap".
Since then, Kelman's novels have become, if anything, still more daunting. Translated Accounts (2001) posed as opaque reports of war crimes in an unspecified country, transcribed (so ran the conceit) by people who didn't speak English. Kieron Smith, Boy (2008) followed the obsessively repetitive rhythms in the mind of a child on a council estate; Mo Said She Was Quirky (2012) did the same for a mother trying to sleep after a night shift.
These uncompromising post-Booker novels paid attention to language and form, but cared less about story, and were more admirable than enjoyable. (Kelman's short stories, where he seems more relaxed, have always been a different matter.) But now, for the first time since his early years, Kelman has written something that resembles a traditional novel without sacrificing his commitment to the interior monologue. The result is poignant and beautiful.
Dirt Road is about coming of age, grief and the folk music of the American Deep South. As the novel opens, 16-year-old Murdo and his father, Tom, are leaving their home on a Scottish island to visit relatives in Alabama. Murdo's mother has recently died of cancer, five years after his older sister died of it, too. But Murdo and Tom don't mention them; they talk about teabags ("Did ye not get any? asked Dad. No but I will now, said Murdo, quickly knotting the lace on his left boot").
After missing a crucial bus, the pair have to stay a night in Pennsylvania. Murdo chances upon a famous zydeco singer rehearsing with her family for a concert in Louisiana. After giving him a shot on their accordion - Murdo wasn't allowed to pack his - they invite him to play at their concert. This improbable offer comes to represent Murdo's transition into adulthood, and his desire to take it up occupies the rest of the novel, as the boy works up the courage to ask his father for permission, expecting him to say no.
As usual, Kelman writes in the third person but from within his protagonist's head. In Murdo's internal chatter, the banal dances with the cosmic. He wonders whether dropping crumbs is all right "if ye fed the birds. But what about the crumbs that landed on the earth? causing wee tremors. Insects would feel it... The earth tremors would tell them. Hundreds of insects arriving... snap snap snap. If they missed the grub they ate one another... Did they even know who was who? That's my granny I better not eat her." Kelman's disdain for conventional narrative furniture - punctuation, "he said", and so on - can be disorientating, but it makes his work thrillingly uncluttered. The dialogue, apparently innocent, crackles with the tension of unvoiced feelings. "Do ye know what ye're having? said Dad. Hamburger and chips. Are we not going in? It's too busy. Aye but it's big inside. There's empty tables. I think we're better with a carry-out son, just to be on the safe side."
Kelman thinks about narrative as carefully as anyone writing at the moment, down to the emotional impact of a dropped full stop. The moment when Murdo and Tom tell each other how much they've been crying is all the more cathartic because we find it's something Murdo has been hiding from us, too. But the best comes last. This brilliant, understated novel ends as it began, with Tom again trying to get Murdo out the door: "Half six son ye better get up."