James Kelman
You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free

If you fancy a rendezvous with a half-cut Begbie, check out the latest Scottish rant novel from Booker prize-shorlisted novelist James Kelman.

By Daisy Foster

Imagine walking into your local for a quiet pint, only to be accosted by a half-cut Begbie from Trainspotting, and you will have some idea of how you'll suffer if you attempt to read James Kelman's latest novel. You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free is a 400-plus-page tirade that explodes from its protagonist, a frighteningly vociferous Scottish immigrant called Jeremiah Brown, as he spends his last night in 'Uhmerka'.

Without any chapter breaks to ease the pain, there is no rest for the reader (or should I say listener?) who enters Jeremiah's company. The rant is so masterfully composed that you almost feel the spray of beer-soaked spit on your face as Jeremiah blasts you with profanities amid his paranoid ramblings. His pink 'scarrish' face leers out of the page, and his broad accent resonates with such clarity that he could be in the room with you. Even though he's given up smoking – 'but tonight i'm finding it excrutiatingly difficult' – you imagine the stench of stale cigarettes about his person.

We first join Jeremiah in his motel room, on the eve of his departure from America back to 'bonne Skallin', the first visit 'hame' for 12 years. He has little to show for his time away, apart from numerous regrets over his 'ex' and small daughter, and a string of dead-end jobs. He decides to go out for one last beer. Inevitably this turns into more, though he's never quite sure how many he's had. The reader looks on in despair, like a long-suffering friend, as Jeremiah gets more intoxicated, inarticulate and confused. This is pretty much it as far as the action goes – but we're treated instead to a manic, meandering mind, punctuated with disjointed accounts of the past.

Permeated with swearing and written in broad Glaswegian dialect, this incessant harangue is what Kelman's weathered readers will expect. Unlike his Booker prize-winning How Late It Was, How Late, though, his most recent book has a lighter tone. Jeremiah's bleary ruminations contain a twisted humour and some startlingly perceptive observations on life's minutiae. In true Kelman style, Jeremiah is cripplingly paranoid – downtrodden both by society and his own (in)actions.

With strange depictions of airport security systems and ID card-carrying immigrants floating about, Kelman portrays an America fuelled by post-9/11 social angst. The book is poignant and real, fractious and surreal – as we expect from a writer of this calibre. Kelman dominated the Scottish literary scene in the 1980s and 1990s. He comes from the same pool as Liz Lochhead, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard, and fashioned a style that influenced many writers, including Irvine Welsh.

What is so crucially brilliant about Kelman's portrayal of Jeremiah is the way we begin to doubt his version of events. We listen on with a twinge of pity, though, humouring Jeremiah as he becomes more drunk. The narrative cleverly follows suit, as it becomes more confusing and obscure. The final, blurry dream-like sequence describes Jeremiah trying to find his way out of the bar and back to his motel. It's a stunning metaphor for his whole futile existence.
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