Book Review

You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free

James Kelman.
Harcourt, 2004.
424 Pages.
ISBN 0151010420; Hardcover $25.00 [
Browse/Purchase]

Review by LJ Lindhurst

James Kelman, once described by the New York Times Magazine as the “Godfather of the Scottish Beats,” revolutionized contemporary Scottish literature in 1992 with the publication of his breakthrough novel The Busconductor Hines. A remarkable work in many regards – its realistic depiction of gritty Glasgow tenement living, for one – The Busconductor Hines is best noted for Kelman’s brilliant use of Scottish dialect. Rendered phonetically and liberally dotted with profanities, Kelman’s manner of storytelling provided a fascinating insight into the language and customs of the hardscrabble urban Glasgowian. By 1994, when his stunning novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize, Kelman had succeeded in painting this so-ugly-it’s-beautiful landscape with such accuracy that contemporaries like Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner had their work cut out for them. Although Welsh in particular has earned a popular following with his crazy tales of hooligan living and his deft mastery of dialect, it’s impossible to ignore Kelman’s presence looming large in the background.
Twelve years and one Trainspotting craze later, James Kelman has come a long way. Over the course of numerous short stories, anthologies, essays, and five full-length novels, Kelman has left the confines of a Glasgow tenement long behind, and has matured into a truly international writer. His 2001 novel, Translated Accounts, is anything but regional, giving us various voices — or “dispatches” — from a nameless society in the throes of a full-on communication breakdown. Described by Kelman as narrations of incidents “transcribed and/or translated into English, not always by persons native to the tongue,” this difficult novel turns language inside-out, filtering it through war, chaos, and technological alienation until all that remains is an uneasy sense of displacement for each of his anonymous voices.
While you have to admire the aspirations behind such a challenging novel, Kelman’s loyal readers may be forgiven a sigh of relief to find that he’s not continuing in that nearly incomprehensible vein. Better yet, Kelman seems to have found a comfortable middle ground between his traditional manner of storytelling and the Beckett-like extremes of Translated Accounts.
You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free finds the Kelman everyman — in this case a displaced Glasgowian named Jeremiah Brown — stranded in a comic book America, one that is slightly more frightening and less accommodating than the real thing. (Or so we’d like to think.) Like Kafka’s Amerika, the setting is surreal and somewhat hard to pin down. Although it has elements that suggest science fiction, one does not get the impression that it takes place in a far-fetched future; nor is it a full-fledged dystopia. In the end, it’s this lack of focus that’s truly unsettling – Kelman’s America is only a slight turn-of-the-screw away.
Like his protagonist, Kelman has recently spent a few years living in the United States, and his own sense of alienation seems to be lurking behind every paragraph. Kelman’s “Land of the Free” is submerged within a constant undertow of paranoia, its mistrust of outsiders (or “furnirs” in Kelman-speak) having become fully institutionalized. Jeremiah is a “Class III” immigrant whose “Red Card” identifies him as the lowest class of immigrant allowed in America, not to mention “an atheist and a socialist.” Public notices require all aliens to produce their ID cards upon request, and Jeremiah is forever getting badgered about his status by oppressive authoritarian American males: 

He nodded, stubbed out the cigarette, pointed to a notice on the wall. It was that federal one with the blue borders advising customers they were required to display appropriate ID on request, in the case of visitors from abroad this meant displaying their alien status. I held up my hands in a gesture of surrender. I got it here, I said, patting my chest and keeping my hands in view at all times, lest he brought out the shotgun from beneath the counter. Do ye want to see it? I said.

I surely do, nothing personal.

Yeh, it’s personal.

Not for me, he said, it aint personal for me.

I sighed and brought out my wallet to show him. It’s always personal for me, I said.

Oh you got a Red Card? He pretended no to look too closely. Who did he think he was kidding. He reached for his cigarette pack while squinting at my photograph. He called to the guy doing the crossword puzzle: Hey Barney, this guy’s got a Red Card.

Aye, I said, no just any auld alien.

Right… The bartender smiled, still squinting at it. You an atheist and a socialist?

Yeh, well, mair an anarchist I suppose, I’m opposed to authority on principle. Mind you, I’ll negotiate on particulars. They aint deportit me yet.

 In addition to this pronounced xenophobia, Kelman also gives us an America where the plight of the working-class — particularly immigrants — is ever-so-slightly more hopeless than in our current climate. During a long night of drinking, Jeremiah tells us the story of his life during his twelve years in America, a large portion of which involved working in “Security” at an airport. We soon find out that his is no normal security job; the failure of the major airlines has produced what is commonly called “the Persian bet,” slang for “the perishing bet” where it is common for individuals to place bets on the odds of surviving airplane travel:

Place your bets ladies and gentlemen: survival in one piece, in two pieces; would travelers emerge with all limbs, one limb or no limb or would they enter a vegetative state, be paralyzed from the neck down.

Of course, the result is the disintegration of the airports themselves. Jeremiah’s description of airport security details the grim results of the “perish or survive” phenomenon; throngs of desperately poor and homeless Americans begin overrunning the airports with last-ditch “lotteries” for survive-or-perish airline tickets that would allow them the chance to place bets on their own survival. Hard-luck gamblers and down-and-out immigrants are recruited into low-paying jobs in “Security,” a virtual army designed to keep the teeming masses in line by use of force if necessary. Airports become chaotic, and the Security Forces herd these unfortunate souls into so-called “Patriot Holding Centers,” huge concentration camps whose inner-workings are insidiously vague.
From here it requires no great leap in logic to see that Kelman intends the airport to serve as an allegorical microcosm of the seemingly inevitable fascist state of America.  Foreigners and the otherwise disenfranchised are exploited, easily enticed by the promise of financial stability or a small amount of power, yet never given any real authority (“my section wasnay allowed weapons of serious destruction lest we seriously destructed wur hosts”); the ever-expanding number of poor and homeless grow increasingly more desperate, depersonalized by governing authorities (“we were gien to understand that the bosses didnay approve of hobnobbing”) and robbed of their liberties in the name of patriotism and public safety; and of course, there’s the brutal and impersonal authority, impenetrable by the lower classes and ruled by the dictates of corporate finance.
Jeremiah is relegated to the “Alien Section” of Security, where he has the distinction of being the only white person (a “pink-face Skarrish masculine male”). A large portion of his narrative rambles between the particulars of this job and his ill-fated relationship with Yasmin, a black American jazz singer with whom he fathers a child. Jeremiah is returning to Scotland after twelve difficult years in America; he’s a ne’er-do-well and a gambler with terrible luck, but he has aspirations of writing a detective novel that never seems to quite get off the ground. Yasmin, on the other hand, is beautiful and talented, and Jeremiah yearns for the elusive — and seemingly impossible — American dream with her:

We were aye in trouble. Me and the ex man we had nay chance. We never had a penny; never nay fucking dough. In all the time we had the gether we were broke. We chased here and we chased there.

Kelman’s stream-of-consciousness prose paints a poignant picture of Jeremiah’s inner workings, probing deeply into his anxieties, his lack of confidence, and his quirky sense of humor in the face of such a harsh and uncaring landscape; his narrative is a pastiche of references to everything from Scottish folk lore to classic American films.
At times, however, Kelman’s style can be overwhelming and disorienting; the narrative cuts abruptly from the past to the present, and there’s a sense of disconnection that never really resolves as the story unfolds – especially when one considers that this is not a particularly eventful story, and Kelman draws it out for 400 some-odd pages. There are also a number of dry spells with long, confusing conversations that go nowhere and feel awkwardly staged. For example, a conversation towards the end of the book deals in part with a poorly-sketched tale of a crooked politician; this story is not only interrupted several times, but leads nowhere. One gets the feeling that it’s supposed to be symbolic of something, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you what that is.
Not surprisingly, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free does not end on a hopeful note; there are no rays of sunshine, and no tidy ending as Jeremiah prepares to return to Scotland. Jeremiah is a lost soul, confused and unlucky, and he seems only more so by the book’s final pages. In this way, Kelman has given us the ultimate American; while Jeremiah is every clichéd story of the optimistic immigrant searching for streets paved with gold, he’s also the personification of Kelman’s cynical view of the American working-class. Regardless of how hard he tries, success, love, and happiness will always be just out of reach, but he has no choice but to keep yearning for these things. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to climb out of poverty, but our culture readily provides just enough fleeting hope that one keeps hanging on to that dream. It’s an over-the-top metaphor in an over-the-top America, but it hits close enough to home to leave the reader wondering whether Kelman’s novel is meant to serve as a warning or a scathing indictment.

–LJ Lindhurst
23 November 2004

Additional Information

Kelman Scriptorium Page – A page of James Kelman links.

Translated Accounts – Tim Conley reviews Kelman's disjointed novel for The Modern Word.

Contact

Email LJ Lindhurst at: ljl@w-rabbit.com

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.