Book review: Dirt Road by James Kelman

Scottish Author James Kelman. Picture: Greg Macvean
Scottish Author James Kelman. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Not the often challenging James Kelman, whose gently ambling new novel is a delight

Dirt Road by James Kelman | Canongate, 369pp, £16.99

James Kelman has always been admired by fellow novelists who respect his integrity and commitment to their craft. He has also been a writer who demands close attention from the reader, and some have found his work inaccessible. Actually, your response to Kelman depends on how you read him. There are some writers, perhaps the majority even, whom you read with the eye alone. You don’t sound the words in your head. But with Kelman you should. You read him more with the ear than the eye.

No one except a reviewer, critic, teacher or student has a duty to read any novel, any more than they have a duty to listen to any piece of music or look at any painting or sculpture. Art isn’t compulsory, and you don’t have to stay in the cinema if the movie bores you. I suspect that over the years a good many readers have found Kelman’s work too bleak, the style either too congested or too repetitive, the narrative too slow. So they’ve closed the book, sometimes bored, sometimes feeling admiration but still finding that they’ve had enough of it. This may be a criticism of the reader rather than the work. It’s not uncommon; there are other novelists, some of them recognised as great ones, who may often bore you because of the demands they make. Proust, Mann and Faulkner all come in this category. There are times they may delight you, times when, frankly, you aren’t up to reading them with the attention their work requires. I’ve got stuck in novels by Conrad and Henry James, too.

So you’ve no duty to read Kelman’s new novel, but you’ll be missing something very good if you don’t, for it may well be the best thing he has written. It’s certainly his most relaxed and easy-going book, a warm and affectionate one. Admittedly there are a few of his irritating stylistic quirks: his preference for omitting the apostrophe in verbs like didn’t and don’t, for writing “ye” for “you” and “yer” for “your”. These are unnecessary affectations – after all, in reading you probably sound words as you pronounce them yourself; but they are venial.

There’s a story here, but no plot as such. Nothing wrong with that, or not much wrong. Many novelists don’t bother with a plot these days, either because they can’t think of one or, more creditably, because plots aren’t true to life as usually experienced, life being ODTAA – the title, incidentally, of a novel by John Masefield – one damned thing after another. Still, the plot is a hook to catch and hold the reader, eager to know what happens next, how things work out. Dispensing with plot requires the author to find other means of retaining the reader’s interest.

Kelman does this here, beautifully. In outline the novel is simple. Tom, recently widowed, and his 16-year-old son Murdo, mourning his mother, fly from Glasgow to visit relations in Alabama. Tom – Dad – is punctilious, polite, careful, inclined to nag his son for his own good. Murdo is shy, unsettled, obedient , only occasionally rebellious or resentful. The story is presented from his point of view, much of it taking place in his mind. Tom is a reader, his nose always in a book. With nice self-restraint and judgement, Kelman doesn’t tell us what he is reading. We may want to know, but Murdo isn’t interested enough to tell us. Murdo himself is passionate about music – he plays the accordion, and music plays a big part in the story after he meets a family of musicians, playing zydeco music, who invite him to join them in a gig. The American relations – Uncle John and Aunt Maureen – are touchingly, convincingly done ; the conversations between them a delight. The novel is partly the story of Murdo’s coming of age – his steps toward maturity – partly the story of the encounter between these shy and reserved Scots, loving each other but finding it hard to communicate, with the culture, manners and morals of the American South. It’s absorbing and delightful, slow certainly, but listen to it and be enriched.

• James Kelman, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 21 August