Boy Wonder: James Kelman’s New Novel

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The New York Sun

Sometimes great writing does not make a great novel. Among the books notably missed on this year’s just-announced Booker Prize short list is “Kieron Smith, boy” (Harcourt, 432 pages, $26) by James Kelman, who won the Booker in 1994 for “How late it was, how late.” Published earlier this year in England, the new book, a long narrative told in the voice of a young boy, is one of Mr. Kelman’s most sustained, impressive efforts — and yet the Booker committee’s exclusion of it is no crime.

Mr. Kelman has one of the strongest, most durable voices in fiction today. His work elicits physical metaphor, because the rough beauty of his written Scottish dialect calls attention to the surface of his stories, regardless of their inner heart and plot. His language can be slippery and hard to read, at first: “Oh be careful if ye do it too fast, if yer fingers just move and even it is just the totiest wee bit. Its tail whished and it was away … ” Mr. Kelman’s sentences can be ever-so-slightly old fashioned, but they are strong and tensile, as well as natural, humble, and graceful. He has none of Hemingway’s overreaching simplicity, and none of Seamus Heaney’s addictive lilt.

His diffidence is all working-class; unlike that of fellow Scot Irvine Welsh, Mr. Kelman’s world is not less real for his coarseness. The hometown of young Kieron Smith, with its scrap yards, polluted ponds, dangerous ferry rides, and its zooming Robin Hood-style escapes and chases over ditches and backyard walls, still has the balance and fresh-aired openness of any plausible postwar industrial landscape. Mr. Kelman appears to have deftly sprung out of his own material, an unmediated literature of urban Scotland.

What makes “Kieron Smith, boy” so impressive is Mr. Kelman’s handling of a young grade-schooler’s voice. Where his previous narrators have been weather-beaten, sometimes hard-living men, choking in some cases on the bitterness of their experience, Kieron is a relative innocent. His life is hard — he talks of playing in a scrap yard where “ye watched for the jaggy glass and melting rubber which stuck to yer hands and was so sore burning ye” — but he lacks the inward thorn of responsibility that goads and shapes Mr. Kelman’s older characters.

But that irresponsibility is part of what makes reading Kieron’s narration a unique experience. Even when talking about emotions, there is something automatic in him: “Ye felt a feeling in yer body and how my da was standing straight so we did it as well,” instinctive as an animal. He is free — even when he is complaining about his bully of an older brother, or telling how his grandfather instructed the two of them during a session of mouse-killing, he can leave the pain behind, changing the subject as if he is changing the channel, and suddenly start talking about his grandmother’s cats:

Then there were wee wee toty ones. They did not even run so ye just bashed them. My granda said they were babies. But ye were still to bash them, ye were not to let them go else they were going to grow up and it would be a plague of them, so ye had to do it and ye did not want to because if they were just wee and they were babies, but ye had to.

My granda had two cats that were mousers, a big one and a wee one. After we got the mice that was what my granda said, Oh I should just have brought the cats, the cats would have gobbled them up. I was not thinking.

The cats were there in my grannie’s house. The wee one lied on the floor near granda’s feet. If I went there the cat crawled under granda’s chair. He did not like people except my granda. But I could pet him. My grannie did not.

It is hard to imagine another boy narrator this realistic. Others, like that of “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,” would at least resolve their narration into thoughts and scenes, but Mr. Kelman’s runs on, showing more than he tells. But his boy is unrealistic in one respect: He keeps talking, recalling story after story, more or less chronologically, so that these pages are more rich with incident than an adult-narrated novel. In some ways, “Kieron Smith” resembles a biography — equally rich in story, equally disjointed. What is realistic about it is the extent to which it does not feel crafted.

That means, however, that as a novel, “Kieron Smith” can be less than satisfying. Though a remarkable narrator, Kieron is not much concerned with his listener’s interests — he could not fathom them, ostensibly. Though he grows throughout the book, and though the complex relations within his family and his neighborhood provide ample material for a plot, the resultant novel is not nearly as impressive as the tissue from which it is made — Kieron’s voice.

The New York Sun

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