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

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The Independent Culture
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)