Murdo MacArthur loses his mother and sister within a short space of time. He and his Dad lead an increasingly silent life. Dad, in his grief, seems to Murdo like one big No. Dad loses track of Murdo, even though they’re in the same house. Forgets to give him pocket money.
Doesn’t ask him if he is happy or how he is doing at school. Murdo’s miserable with it and wants to quit. What he likes is playing in his band – he’s the accordionist and pretty good. Murdo and Dad take a plane to America, to visit Uncle John and Auntie Maureen in Alabama. But Murdo, a daydreamer, leaves his mobile behind. So, in sixteen-year-old terms, he’s nothing.
In America, they have to stay in a crumby motel, which isn’t on their budget. There are no toilet rolls or towels in their room. But when these things are innocently asked for by Murdo, they are freely given. It was just an oversight, not proof that America has gone down the drain nor an overt act of punishment for being a weird-sounding pesky tourist. (It’s Britain where you don’t get towels.)
Murdo encounters an older lady playing an accordion on the porch of her house. He’s never heard this music before (it’s Zydeco, something like Cajun, though more French and more bluesy). He’s fascinated, introduces himself, and after resistance from some members of her family (‘Not American! Mon Dieu!’), he’s allowed to play a tune on a beautiful turquoise-coloured accordion. The lady, Queen Monzee-ay, a Zydeco star, is impressed with Murdo’s music, and invites him to play with her at a gig in Louisiana. This is one of the important stories of the novel: Queen Monzee-ay is that adult, that non-parent, non-teacher, that every adolescent needs to encounter. The one adult you’ve met so far in life who can actually see you through the static. Who tells you, you’re OK with me. You’re just fine.
James Kelman is one of the few novelists working in Britain today with an innate feel for the possibilities of language, and who is ambitious in his use of it. You could say that, often, the subject of Kelman’s books is language. Novels like A Disaffection and How Late it Was, How Late stretched his readers, as fiction should do, going into uncommon realms of self-examination and social criticism. These books are pretty well outwith the jurisdiction of most contemporary novels, which are for the most part mere stories of something a little complicated happening to a few people rather like yourself. Kelman’s work, precisely through its free approach to language, is different. A Disaffection was widely compared to some of the novels of Samuel Beckett. Not because Kelman was imitating Beckett – the motivations and purposes of the two writers are very different. But because most readers aren’t used to seeing the characters in a work, its narrator, the events that occur in it, and the whole society in which it takes place, minutely anatomized, politically scrutinized and then pounded with a sledgehammer for good measure. Even Jane Austen doesn’t do that, and she’s pretty good.
Here is Kelman as Murdo, on the fiddle tune ‘Macpherson’s Farewell’: ‘Just dealing with the problem, that was Macpherson. Hullo and cheerio. Up on the gallows awaiting the drop. People waiting to buy yer fiddle. Guys ye knew. Ye were maybe having a beer with them the night before. Now here they were, wanting yer stuff. Oh you’re going to be dead in a minute so give me yer fiddle. Fuck you. Maybe yer clothes too, jees, the olden days; people had nothing. You go your way they go theirs.’
Kelman’s use of language in Dirt Road is not the way you might have come to expect; it’s less aggressive. This is probably out of respect for Murdo, wanting to give voice to him and let him have his experience without interference from a competing narrator. Murdo’s point of view is the leading one; other perspectives and portions of story are supplied by tentative remarks from Dad and family tales from the aunt and uncle. These multiple voices all contribute to Murdo’s view of things: a teenager is, if anything, a collection of influences.
In Kelman there is often a guy under pressure, trying to figure out what to do about it, sometimes with crazy home-grown logic which nevertheless works. In A Disaffection, a pissed-off school teacher casually sets off on what turns into an epic journey, a real odyssey in a bad car. Hines the bus conductor’s sources of grief are closer to hand, the ridiculousness of the bus company he works for and fears that he is incompetent as a husband (the famous page about how to make mince and tatties – when you don’t really know how – comes to mind). In How Late it Was, How Late the sense of oppression and derangement is acute. The hero of that book, and he really is one, is an unlucky veteran being abused by the police and the state. And he is blind.
In Dirt Road, the males are all in trouble, yes: Dad is very depressed and doesn’t know it. Uncle John has a sense of security that the others don’t: he tells himself that he’s ‘made it’, in America, and that other Scottish men can and should do the same. The reader will be the best judge of that. It’s Murdo’s simple wishes, to be himself, connect with this new music, and have a genuine experience of somewhere else, that land him in the panicked position of the typical Kelman male. Here he is sleeping rough in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he woke in the middle of the night to find a strange guy staring at him: ‘The wee grass square. What was wrong with the wee grass square? If the maniac was there so what if it was daylight. People were out and about. What could he do? Nothing. Not in daylight, not in front of witnesses. And like the cops, too, if they were there, they would just shoot him. … But he wasnt a scary maniac. he was scary but not a maniac; a scary guy. A lot of guys are scary. They can be. You just have to tell them, Fuck off, away and scare somebody else.’
You would have to treat of religion in an encounter with the American South. Murdo’s grief over the loss of his mother and sister comes out in a quiet, honest soliloquy to some stupid ladies, friends of his aunt’s. He objects to their assertion that his beloved older sister, Eilidh, is with Jesus now. No, insists Murdo, she’s with me. This heartfelt assertion is met with shock and has repercussions around the community Murdo and Dad are visiting. Murdo gets engrossed in a large American road atlas in his aunt’s house. Dirt Road as a title might come from such a designation in a book like that – it never comes up as such, but its implications and connotations are wonderful. As Murdo pages through this book every day he is already lost. And found.
Dirt Road is good on adolescence, really good: the hot flashes of self contempt, the sudden unsureness, the wet dreams. Kelman writes more than once compellingly about what it’s like to fall asleep as a teenager. The intense boredom of the aunt and uncle’s house becomes rocket fuel: stifled by his inert relatives, Murdo plots to make the gig in Louisiana. He has little money, undertakes a gruelling bus journey, and sleeps rough. Kelman at his best, of course: when the life you are used to suddenly goes completely haywire, filling you with despair and doubt, making you rage, making you dirty.
Writing about music is difficult; it’s also an adolescent impulse, a teenage thing to want to do, which is perfect for Murdo. Murdo’s thoughts as he plays: ‘If he had had a guitar he would have played in a rhythm the way he did for Chess Hopkins. Just to get himself in. Once in that was that. Here he didn’t have the guitar, he went with the fingers, where the fingers led him, geared toward the tunes he had been listening to these last many days … Queen Monzee-ay would be leading and you would know which way to follow, you would find it. You go that way how you think, you go that way how you think, how you think, oh jees yeah on ye go, just like whatever, whatever. Ye could shiver in that kind of playing; and hearing it in other musicians.’
It’s believable that this is how a sixteen-year-old expresses his groove, but it’s not very enlightening as to the stuff. One always feels left out by this kind of writing about music. At the end, some admiring musicians ask Murdo to join up with them. One of them says: ‘Where you’re going people dont worry so much. Like officialdom? Not once you’re in. it’s good down there. Good music, good food, good people. Dont worry like your age now that dont matter. You want to work you can work.’ Most parents who read this are going to get chest pains. The musicians try to put it to Dad that a hand-to-mouth existence is all right, but never mind settling Dad’s hash – what about the hash of the Department of Homeland Security, the biggest goddam Dad with the biggest No in the world? Is this what we need now, adolescent music-and-immigration fantasy? Maybe yes, maybe no. You could try running it past President Trump come January.
Dirt Road raises legitimate questions about how one should approach life as a young person now. There is no such thing as Kelman Lite, thank god. But Dirt Road might be the Young Person’s Guide to James Kelman: an entrance to the true world of male neurosis, depression and self-loathing in which he specializes. Younger readers, male and female, could well go from Dirt Road to A Disaffection and The Busconductor Hines and take on board the affectionate and tremendous advice Kelman has to offer about being alive: it stinks.