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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all