Scottish Mischief

Sunday, January 4, 2009


By James Kelman

Harcourt. 422 pp. $26

Glasgow, like Belfast across the Irish Sea, has never been an easy town to love. Second cities -- think Chicago -- rarely are. Ugly-duckling cousins of their respective national capitols, Glasgow and Belfast were mostly Victorian creations, proud of their shipbuilding, proud of their soot. At least until the ships, the soot and the pay packets went somewhere else.

In Kieron Smith, Boy, James Kelman's splendid evocation of childhood in mid-20th-century Glasgow, the title character is a boy who does not know a great deal. But what he does know he knows very well. And one thing he knows for certain is who's a Prod (Protestant) and who's a Pape (Catholic). Like Belfast, Glasgow was always a town with a sectarian divide wide enough to march an Orange parade through.

Kieron earns pocket money by climbing drainpipes and breaking into houses for housewives who've left without their keys. He loves and resents an older brother, a snobby mother and a father with quick fists. He endures a challenging, painful transition from familiar streets to a new-fangled housing project, and he develops an ethical sense along with an enduring fascination for lasses, ships, telly and a beloved ex-boxer grandfather.

This boy's story is told entirely from his point of view and in his voice, tuned to the hard, sharp speech of Glasgow's working-class ghettos:

"Podgie could sink ye with one punch. I would not care. If it was a bottle, I would batter him with it because if it was yer sister ye were no going to let that happen. I would not be feared of him."

This kind of thing could start sounding like Glaswegian faux-Faulkner in the hands of a writer less aurally gifted. Instead, Kelman, who won the Booker Prize for another Glasgow novel, How Late It Was, How Late (1994) uses Kieron's stylized, wise-child speech to economically assemble a particular world. It reminded me of Linda Manz's voice-over in Terrence Malick's epic film "Days of Heaven," which was the lyric thread that sewed the pieces of that narrative together. As an urban coming-of-age, the novel also reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith's enduring evocation of an unloved girl's adolescence.

This funny, sad and deeply entrancing novel works as dreams do: by seduction, by raising strange spirits, and by delivering a world entire. It represents a triumph for Kelman, as hard and uproarious as a Glasgow Saturday night.

-- Peter Behrens, the author of "The Law of Dreams."

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