THE GOOD TIMES
By James Kelman
Anchor. 246 pp. Paperback, $12.95
Reviewed by George P. Pelecanos
As the century draws to a close, we find ourselves living in one of two separate societies, shouting or not bothering to shout across the chasm, the gap between the haves and have-nots widening day by day. Increasingly, blue-collar workers have become the new Invisible Man, and are no more visible in popular and literary fiction than they are in the minds of the privileged. Modern authors who attempt to explore the lives of the working class and the downtrodden inevitably face an indifferent reading public and an often-hostile critical establishment that seems to scratch its collective heads and ask, Why?
Scottish writer James Kelman experienced this hostility when his novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize in 1994. Critics railed against its "small" subject matter, while members of Parliament reportedly lobbied for the book to be banned due to its profane language and content. Others complained about the inaccessibility of the material, with its stream-of-consciousness prose, disregard for traditional punctuation, and impenetrable Scottish dialect. In the end, the story of a drunken, ex-con shoplifter, blinded by the police and wandering the rainy streets of Glasgow, was perhaps too raw for the delicate sensibilities of those manning the literary gates.
The experience, apparently, did not render the author timid. In his powerful new collection of short stories, The Good Times, Kelman has stubbornly returned to his favorite milieu, the underside of Scotland, populated by the disillusioned and disenfranchised.
Those looking for plot twists and cathartic events in their short fiction should take note: Nothing much "happens" in these stories in the narrative sense; the action, however, is furiously alive in the heads of Kelman's confused, embittered characters. There is much profanity in this book, but it is earned, born in boredom and anger and stoking the rhythms of everyday speech. The voices of Kelman's people, as varied and distinct as those of Joyce's Dublin, are both scabrous and spot-on. The author perfectly captures the unbeautiful lyricism of their fractured thoughts and words.
If there is a common thread to this collection, it is the many ways in which working men and women deal with the reality of their unpromising existence. In "The Norwest Reaches" a new father chooses fantasy, making nightly visits to a shopkeeper's place of business, where the two of them talk of travel to exotic places neither of them will ever see. A man fights depression with delusion in "Yeh, these stages." Violence is the possible outlet for two strangers in a welfare line in "It happened to me once." Friendship and affectionate bickering are the remedy for a grounds crew looking to alleviate the grind of the day-to-day in the funny and excellent "Gardens go on forever." Others find solace in alcohol, as in "The Comfort," in which the author uncannily inhabits the irrational, raging cloud of a drunken mind. Then there is the dead-end cocktail of alcohol-and-nostalgia, described in "Every [expletive] time," in which a middle-aged man and his mates go to a local pub and discuss childhood fights, sports, and the "ease" of swearing off drink: "Maybe it was time to go off it again. Even just for a wee while. It was a thing I could do. One time I lasted three months. I didnay find it a problem."
In the best of these stories, Kelman's characters find grace in the commonplace, achieving a kind of street-won glory in the process. Most wonderfully, in "Constellation," a man walks across town to see his girl, looks up into the stars and takes comfort in the beauty of the night: "Imagine taking a taxi and missing it all. That was what happened to these people with money, they were too busy rushing here and there. It was them got left behind. They never saw the space, they never got the time. My auld man was right. Money was supposed to buy ye everything but naw it didnay. It was the lack, not having it. The poor inherit the earth. That is what the bible tells ye. Wrong says my da, it's theirs already."
As luck would have it, this collection of 20 stories has been published in paperback format, making it easier to carry around town on a slow afternoon. These are the kinds of stories that should be read, and reflected on, while sitting in a bar or coffeehouse, or on a bench in the park. That's how I plan to read The Good Times when I pick it up again.
George P. Pelecanos is the author of "The Sweet Forever" and the upcoming "Shame the Devil."