James Kelman is the master of awkwardness. In this intensely realised collection of short stories, we encounter a wide variety of awkward voices. Some narrators are awkwardly nervous about social groups. Others are discomfited by their families. Some are awkward about tenderness and erotic desire. Some are awkwardly critical of the state when those around them seem not to care, while others seem to be politically active, and so live with the threat of physical violence.
Physical awkwardness arises through the hard graft of carrying a bike through a hilly park, through the humiliation of bed-ridden illness, through the odd bodily dynamics of a mass march, or through the blunt loss of an amputated limb. Social awkwardness emerges in clashes of comprehension, in excessive judgement, in the coldness of officialdom, in snobbery, class prejudice, competitiveness and half-buried neighbourly rage. This is a world of individual struggle: we hear from homeless, itinerant men, an unethical middle manager, a self-conscious student, an alienated grandparent, a cancer patient struggling to write, and a man unable to intervene while he watches a couple fighting in a pub. Having published short stories for nearly 40 years, Kelman finally seems to grant access to the space of his writing psychology. In one perfectly poised fragment, a writer types beneath a full moon, berating "all those awful fucking writers who present nice images in the presupposition of universal fellowship under the western stars". Crucially, he questions his own arrogance in presuming to be superior. Is our mature Kelman writing about himself, the moon shining on his desk as his family sleeps, as someone across the street throws things out of a flat window? We might be tempted to ask whether this writer – known for the high seriousness of his art – is flirting with his hard-won audience.
Kelman has always explored how hard it is to be working-class in a world of middle-class power; this collection continues that project. He is clinical in pointing out how tricky it is to be a working-class intellectual in a closeted world where a mother can throw a son's books on the fire. But no matter the situation, reading will win out.
Simon Kövesi lectures at Oxford Brookes University