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BOOK REVIEW / Spelling Glasgow in four letters: 'How Late it Was, How Late' - James Kelman: Secker, 14.99 pounds

'LOOK eh pardon me; just one thing, ye're gony have to watch yer language; sorry; but every second word's fuck.' Not every second word, in fact; a random sampling of James Kelman's new novel suggests that the word occurs on average a mere 10 times a page - fewer than 4,000 occurrences in all. It's true that the main character, Sammy, sometimes gives way to a vernacular of spectacular indignation ('Fuck yer coffee and fuck yer tea and fuck yer fucking milk if yer fucking lucky enough to fucking have fucking any of the fucking stuff man know what I'm saying'). But many pubs in Britain would furnish a similarly vertiginous four-letter-count.

Kelman's method has been compared to that of the camera, but a tape- recorder would be nearer the mark: he writes what he hears, without judgment or condescension; what we dislike is the sound of our own voices on the tape. But to trace or invent the inner music of people's thoughts, feelings, dreams and delusions - this requires greater powers than mere audio- verisimilitude. The bulk of this book consists not of dialogue but of Sammy's stream of consciousness: he is an ex-convict whose vocabulary is much more limited than even the archetypally 'ordinary' Leopold Bloom's in Ulysses. The challenge Kelman sets himself is to make such a consciousness convincing and - against considerable odds - to hold his readers' attention.

Nothing and everything happens to Sammy during the few days of this novel's time-span. A Glaswegian with a criminal record and a fondness for a pint or two, he wakes one morning sore, stiff, dishevelled, and with no memory of the previous day: plus ca change. He is arrested, and spends a short time in a prison cell. He returns home and finds his woman gone. He tries to pick up the pieces of his old life, but it isn't easy; he wonders whether it might not be better to try his luck down south, in 'one of those quaint auld sleepy English places with a big long stretch of seashore where collie dogs go in paddling with their owners'. Mostly he stays home, disconsolately playing cassettes. He is re-arrested, questioned and released. He feels knackt - exhausted and hopeless.

The usual low-life stuff. But Sammy has also gone blind. We take some time to register this because he does, too. Beaten up by the police during his arrest, he experiences pain and blackness, but it is only when he is released and has to 'patacake' his way home that we grasp the seriousness of his problem. And long after this Sammy denies and procrastinates, to a sometimes comic degree: aye, there's a two-and-half-litre tin of white gloss in his flat to paint his walking-stick with, but how can he see which tin it is?

How Late It Was, How Late is a novel of exasperation. The exasperation is Sammy's own - with life, which has mucked him about since the kickoff; with himself, for never having mastered more than the ground-rules of survival; with the bureaucratic 'bastards' and 'bampots' who make it difficult for him to claim his basic rights as a citizen. The reader shares this exasperation: the book's narrative momentum is our hope against hope that Sammy will sort himself out - consult an eye specialist, recall the events of his 'lost' day, make a damages claim against the police, be restored to health. But the grim, wearing truth of the novel is that people like Sammy - intelligent but inarticulate, stubborn but self-defeating, prisoners of class prejudice and state repression - don't stand a chance.

In his dour but admirable way, Kelman denies his audience the lounge comforts he associates with the 'posh' English novel. This is partly a matter of his using a Scots demotic, which rarely proves hard to decipher but which is a long way from the Queen's English: birled, clatty, poky (prison), sodjers (police), drookit, blag a bunnet, and so on. Yet Sammy is not sentimental about Scotland ('It was his country, okay, but that didnay mean ye had to like it'), and Kelman's constituency is broader than the tag 'Scottish novelist' implies. Certainly the main influences here are not Lewis Grassic Gibbon, or even Alasdair Gray and Jeff Torrington (who are named on the acknowledgments page). The novel begins with some stuff about stolen footwear that might have come from Pinter's Caretaker and is set in a bureaucratic maze that looks like Kafka's. Its stoical voice - 'Ye blunder on but ye blunder on' - owes much to Beckett. Its narrator, with his gaps and self- deceptions, prompts occasional doubts that he might be Unreliable. It shows a Modernist disregard for chapter divisions, and there is a sentence on pages 315-16 of almost Proustian protractedness. Even Kelman's political edge might have been honed by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

Occasionally that political edge disfigures the book. However plausible their stalling methods, I didn't believe in the language used by the doctor and the DSS official who fob Sammy off. But the 'story' of the novel is unexpectedly compelling, and where Kelman allows Sammy free expression of his philosophy, his language rises to a lyric bleakness: 'this silence as well, no even a clock ticking; nay point winding the clock, no unless ye could work out some way of counting the ticks, the one ye began with and then ended with, it was useless, they all sounded the same, it just wasnay on . . .'

(Photograph omitted)