YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL IN THE LAND OF THE FREE
By James Kelman. Harcourt. 410 pp. $25 P. G. Wodehouse once remarked that sometimes a writer decides he's such a hotshot stylist that he can just dispense with plot or action. Not so. Yet this is the basic problem with You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free.
James Kelman -- winner of the Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late -- possesses an astonishing voice on the page, mixing interior monologue, colloquial speech, run-on sentences, the occasional Scots word (e.g., wean for child), fancy nouns to spark up a phrase (spleneticism) and every possible variant, employed at every possible moment, of the most common English vulgarism for sexual intercourse. Read a page of Kelman and you can't help but laud his sheer virtuosity, the ease with which he can shift tonal registers. Here is his protagonist, Jeremiah Brown, age 34, about to return to Glasgow after 12 years in America, stopping in a bar the night before he's due to climb on a plane. He admires a pretty waitress:
"I wasnay gauny talk to Sally about failed . . . relationships, given her hips swung when she set off walking from my table. Obviously it was unintentional. I know some guys, they would have thought she was doing it for their benefit but that was a lie sir, an uttah fabrication sir, you shame ma family sir, yasm."
Over the course of the long evening encompassed by the novel, Sally brings Jeremiah seven or eight beers and a glass of whiskey, which he spills. He sits there at his table, occasionally glares at the bar's manager, converses for a while with an elderly couple, eventually wanders out into the snowy night. But for the most part he just drinks, not to forget but to remember. He recalls his life in America: gambling at cards, bartending, working as a security agent at an airport. Most of all, he returns, again and again, to his love for his "ex" and their child (a girl who is never named). Yasmin has left him because he's proven such a failure at everything. And so he rambles on about the past dozen years, those low-paying, dead-end jobs, Yasmin's gigs as a jazz vocalist (Nina Simone is her model), his daughter, his periodic confrontations with authority, how he never had much and finally lost that. It is an old story. Jeremiah Brown could be any no-hoper morosely hunched there in a smoky corner, sipping one for his baby and ordering one more for the road.
Kelman makes Jeremiah's love for Yasmin the heart of his American experience, and their unofficial marriage is wrecked largely because he can never make enough money to rent a proper apartment, buy a decent car, truly support his family. Interestingly, Kelman avoids identifying Yasmin's race, and only near the novel's end do we know for sure that she is "dark brown" (and Jeremiah "pink"). The two simply love each other. The jazz singer's band members don't particularly take to the skinny Scot, this foreigner, and that might hint at racial prejudice. But that's about it. Such color-blindness is refreshing (if at least slightly unrealistic).
At more than 400 pages of largely relentless stream of consciousness, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free simply goes on too long. Like real drunks in real bars, Jeremiah can't tell a straight story and he doesn't know when to stop. Still he can be funny along the way. A friend of his sports a ludicrous mustache: "Like maist of us he had a tremendous regard for Pancho Villa but so what, it doesnay mean ye stop shaving." After losing at pool to a Mexican kid who makes, with ease, a miraculous, almost impossible shot, Jeremiah says, "For some reason I examined my cue. I kept my heid lowered. In the physical presence of spiritual beings ye have to." Sometimes the humor builds on the Scot's penchant for slapstick oratory, as when he explains why he always carries his papers with him:
"If I was tramping the mean streets in search of work and chanced into a bar or cafe and met somebody hiring help then whoosh, Here are ma papers sir. You need someone to pour a proper glass of stout sir? carry bricks and mortar sir, wear a kilt and wait table sir, wield a claymore sir, push a pen, pick a pocket, deal the cards, construct a database, settle a bet, perform minor heart surgery, sell ma body, write a screenplay, scramble up the rone pipe and enter that toty wee window and rob the Inkliz crown jewels?"
But mostly Jeremiah goes in for sorrowful and shrewd observations: "One relaxes into sentimentality, especially with women" or "She was one of these women men have difficulty walking beside. Except for loose-fitting trousers where would we be?" During his time with Yasmin he tries to write a private-eye novel but keeps forgetting his notebook, and then he blows his savings by attempting to win big at poker. Though he works hard, he never gets ahead. "How could people earn so little for so much? These are the questions that floor a body."
Jeremiah isn't uneducated. He's a left-wing radical, speaks fondly of second-hand bookshops, refers to Pat Hobby (from Scott Fitzgerald's late stories) and can even make jokes using classical music references. When a couple of straight-arrow security guys start to hassle him, he imagines that they might be Freemasons: "Maybe they would relax if I whistled the second movement of Mozart's clarinet concerto, the section used as a code by particular lodges in stressful situations." At times Kelman's revved-up prose sounds like that of Hunter Thompson or the dizzying English writer Iain Sinclair, albeit with a Glaswegian accent. But style alone just won't carry a long novel, and though we feel sorry for Jeremiah, Yasmin and the wean, and laugh or weep at the often absurdist comedy of their lives, we finally weary of the relentless soliloquizing. Should the book have been shorter? Probably. Or perhaps admirers of Kelman's past work, not to mention those wanting to give him a try, should just plan on savoring only a few pages at a time.
"What can a man do," asks Jeremiah, "except return life to its aching parts?" You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free touches movingly on many of those aching parts, but those parts, alas, don't quite make a whole. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.