BOOK REVIEW / Ye wind up making a mountain: 'How Late It Was, How Late' - James Kelman: Secker and Warburg, 14.99

In the first paragragraph of James Kelman's extraordinary new novel, a compelling voice insists: 'There's something wrong; there's something far far wrong.' It is the opening chorus of what amounts to a book-length incantation, an epic singing of a few days in the life of Sammy Samuels, unlikely hero, ex- con, full time job-seeker, man-about- the-rougher-streets of Glasgow.

How late it was, how late is a saga both hilarious and harrowing. There are, in fact, a goodly number of things that have gone 'far far wrong', things that could normally be counted on to stop a man in his tracks and bowl him over, though not anything Sammy can't handle. He's had a frightful row with his lover and she has left him; he has been beaten up by the police, in the wake of which the lungs, the spinal cord, and the eyes are all giving a spot of bother . And he's back in jail again, his battered body in a most uncomfortable bunk. 'These things are sent to try ye,' Sammy shrugs. 'Life; life is sent to try ye.' But still and all, to take realistic stock: 'There was things out his control. There was things in his control but there were other things out, they were out his control, he had put them out his control.'

They may be, they may be, but things are never out of Kelman's control. Poet and magician, he snaps his fingers, shakes verbal sorcery out of his hat, and plies the ancient prosodies of enchantment: triads, runic runs, incremental repetition of ballads and charms. He casts spells; he weaves his circle round you thrice (he is particularly good at thriceing); he sings Sammy; Sammy sings himself; he slides in and out of his own skin, his edges fluid, second person to third and back to second - 'every wee detail, ye wind up making a mountain out of a molehill.' He sings you into the song, you're singing it, you're singing Sammy, or maybe Sammy is singing you, or you are Sammy singing yourself - Kelman has this eerie trick of getting Sammy's lilt lodged inside your head like a bee in a bottle, and you can't get it out, man, know what I mean? you just can't get it out, it's out of your control, you're floundering, you're just floundering around with Sammy in the dark.

This, in a nutshell, is the astounding achievement of Kelman's latest novel: that you are stuck, for 374 pages, inside the befuddled hung-over mind and the unshaven none-too-clean skin of a blind drunk who achieves nothing in a week beyond the fact of surviving it, but you are never bored. You laugh often, you are horrified, frightened, you are elated by small victories. You feel claustrophobia.

You are literally blind (or, to be technically correct, in the bafflegab of assorted social workers and government medics, you are suffering from a sight-loss dysfunction, possibly temporary, probably not). You are also metaphorically blind, a living symbol of the blundering about that is required of the long-term unemployed and of those who live in a society parallel to the officially sanctioned one and largely invisible to it. You perceive that justice is indeed blind, but not in the way you have been taught to believe. You are now below the sight line, you are in justice's blind spot, as it were. 'Ye have to understand about the law,' a friend explains helpfully to Sammy, 'it isnay there to apply to them, it's there to apply to us, it's them that makes it.' This novel exposes, with a ferociously sharp satirical edge, the fraudulent benevolence of welfare bureaucracy where the blind lead the blind. 'Did something cause the dysfunction?' a social worker asks. 'Or else did it just happen?' The novel poses the moral and political question: who sees more clearly?

Sammy's literary provenance is a mongrel assemblage of Gogol's Akaky Akakievich (he of the overcoat), Joyce's Leopold Bloom, a touch of Beckett's Estragon and Vladimir (going nowhere), of Solzhenitsyn's hapless but quietly uncrushable Ivan Denisovich - and a strong dash of ancestry much more roistering and earthy: Falstaff, Tom Jones, Gulley Jimson.

Sammy is never disillusioned because he had no illusions to start with. 'Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt. That's the story; the cot to the fucking funeral pyre.' Not that Sammy is going to waste time feeling sorry for himself or complaining. Man to man, he doesn't know how God stands it, all that whining, 'fuck sake man, the auld god almighty, the central authority, he gets sick of all that complaining from us cunts, human beings, he's fucking sick of it and ye cannay blame him, who's gony blame him, give the guy a break, know what I mean.' Sammy's not a believer but he has a grudging respect for God. 'If there was a god he was some man.'

Underneath the shimmering witty surface (and laughter bubbles up in Sammy as constantly and irrepressibly as it does in the reader), there's a dark undertow. When exactly, and why exactly, did the police 'give him a doing' of such ferocity that he came to in jail and found himself blind?

Why is the government medic so intent on proving that his sight-loss dysfunction, while probably permanent, is very likely a problem of temperament? (The doctor prescribes anti-stress medication.) Why has Sammy's lover Helen disappeared without a trace? What exactly happened on that lost weekend of his drinking binge, the binge that led to his beating and arrest? What happened on the Saturday which he cannot recall at all, except for the vague memory of bumping into Charlie Barr in a pub somewhere? And Is Charlie still mixed up with politics and violence?

Why do the police keep insisting Sammy's in big trouble, political trouble? Is Sammy paranoid? How can he possibly tell when his most casual comments and the most trivial details of his life turn out to be monitored and to be used as evidence against him?

The most disturbing pieces of evidence reach us casually, indirectly. Their power is the shock of the oblique. The fact of police brutality, for example, barely registers in Sammy's consciousness; it's just too common to be worthy of note. It is not until halfway through the novel, when the doctor, prescribing anti-stress medication for the 'alleged dysfunction . . . in respect of sight-loss capacity,' also prescribes 'an ointment which you may apply to areas of your upper trunk' that we realize there is substantial visible evidence of the beating. And there's a chilling moment when Sammy, blind and battered, is rearrested and is bracing himself for another roughing up in his prison cell: 'One of them sounded quite close to the back of his head and he had to stop himself ducking, it would just have intimidated them . . . cause he was expecting a blow at any time. It was alright. He felt that; it was okay, he wasnay worried; it was just the way when it landed he wouldnay be prepared; but there was nothing ye could do; and if ye cannay do nothing then dont fucking worry about it.'

And that is Sammy's credo for survival. 'Ye cannay take the initiative but at least ye can ward off the blows.' This novel alters one's sense of scale. By its end, the mere fact of survival seems a triumph of immense scope, a tribute to courage, dignity, fierce optimism. 'These wee victories,' Sammy says, heading for the pub, 'ye've got to celebrate them, otherwise ye ferget ye've won them.' How late it was, how late is celebration and indictment in equal parts, a passionate, scintillating, brilliant song of a book.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific