Anakana Schofield – Author of Martin John and Malarky

James Kelman Kieron Smith, Boy

I have a theory — I revise my theories four times a day — but this one persists. If you’re going to write working-class stories, they had better arrive beyond bloody brilliant, because stick-handling them past the gatekeepers of the predominantly middle-class publishing industry will require a shot that lands right between the eyes.

In part, this is due to the squeezed nature of publishing: Marketing departments guillotine editorial leaps of faith, so even the impassioned editor who can see some value in proletariat-inclusive prose can face tripping.

To espouse such an opinion, prepare to be deafened by catcalls, but scan your bookshelves and you’ll see what I am muttering about. How often are our literary folk driving the bus, or digging a hole?

James Kelman has had an earful of it, having been called an “illiterate savage” (Times columnist Simon Jenkins). His 1994 Booker win for How Late It Was, How Late was described as “a disgrace” by a Booker judge.

Kelman usually returns to the page (and the odd gruff interview) to settle his class war and heckle his detractors. He refuses to budge from the cadence and minutiae of the world that he’s from — working-class Glasgow — and that matters to him, so he has not, despite the poor trappings of literary success, been seduced from the factory floor.

With so much to mine and so few writers on his turf, why would he be? His influence on a younger generation of writers, such as Irvine Welsh, is uncontestable, even by some of the aforementioned proletariat-averse doughnut heads, for whom a sharp dip into poverty may aid the realization we do not require everyone on the page to only live like them.

Kelman’s new novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, demonstrates again he’s not planning on diluting his style any time soon. Whether you stay and see Kieron marching toward adolescence will depend on how much you demand from your musical register, and your relationship to the act of reading. Kelman has no interest in providing the neat or traditional literary stepladders or any hint of a stick trail to tempt you through his book. There will be no lift, no plot, no explanation.

Hallelujah, says I. It’s a book you read line by line. Give praise, says I. The prose is like a jigsaw puzzle that pieces episodes: the present and past world of one small boy, resolutely in his wee world (redolent of Le Petit Nicolas crossed with a no-jokes Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha) of fighting with his peers, avoiding his despot brother, having his accent corrected by his mother and erased by his teacher, climbing the school roof, shinnying the roan pipe, fighting, more fighting, navigating sectarianism, while worrying he has a Pape (Catholic) name, reading, swimming pool, football, stolen bike and dead granddad. The sectarian football fighting is particularly well created and interpreted from the child’s point of view.

Initially, if you’re of auditory inclination, you’ll love the percussive nature of the prose: ye, ye, ye, cribbed, jooked, dreeped. Then there’s the picnic with endless duo and trio blenders, such as I was greeting … ponging, sparring, a doing, a kicking. The censorship of the spelling, meant to replicate the squashing of his accent, is like an inbuilt quiz.

All this serves to heighten the message that Kieron is not all right, it’s not all right that he’s poor and only education might save him. But his bully brother is good at his lessons, while Kieron tends to exasperate all around him with his Shackleton expeditions up and over the roof.

Even as he is being shaved away, and squashed and skelped by his father, he remains a dotey boy, though some readers may find him remarkably unremarkable. There’s a very interesting contradictory and reinforcement device in his vernacular and Kelman sits in those eye sockets and never budges. There’s a near-identical haze from the left-hand corner of puzzle across to the right, so that you could essentially open the book anywhere and read it forward or backward. For the first 159 pages, it was my idea of wonderful, far from a mere sentimental vote; the victory was seeing the recognizable flagstones of working-class life that are so rarely on the page. And then, at page 160, I ground to inexplicable and crushing halt.

To temper my despair, I reread parts of Beckett’s Watt and Malone Dies, but no matter, still I could not go on. I went back to read some of Kelman’s early work, where weaker prose and recurrent theme of bloke who can’t get laid because he lacks a gas fire and fitted carpets sent me two rungs farther down the ladder. Still nohow on. I read a bit of Beckett’s Happy Days: “Ah well — no worse — no better, no worse — no change — said Winnie.” And, thanks be to God for Winnie inspecting her mouth, I had it. Kelman only gives you his people exactly as they are in that very sequence: no worse — no better — and after 160 pages, no change.

There’s nothing specifically dark or difficult about this book, there’s simply too much of it; imagine chomping an endless piece of spaghetti in exactly the same rhythm until you discover an epic need to cease chomping. Is this a problem? Are all books written to be read in their entirety? I doubt it. Are we only satisfied as readers if we hit a pole vault of victory in our books? I think not.

In his resolute truth to the tenor of his wee man — initially what I thought to be a wise decision — Kelman scuppers himself, because beyond 200 pages, he fails to raise what’s extraordinary in this ordinary, and ordinary, ordinary, drifts into a numbing hum. It’s not unpleasant, but neither for that matter is listening to the fridge.

Kelman may be a writer who some readers only summit a chunk of his books, but what thinking reader requires an Olympic conclusion anyway? Rather, we desire significant moments that force us to consider life in a way we may not have considered it before. You’ll get some moments in this book and the rest of the time you’ll be greeting and sleeting and fleeting.